NEW MILFORD—When Bob Coppola returned from his two years serving in the Vietnam War, he tried not to talk about his time in the army.

“I was very careful not to mention my experience, because it would have invoked debates that I didn’t feel I was part of,” he said.

Coppola, a sergeant, said he left his teaching position in Massachusetts after being drafted because it was his duty as an American citizen. But when he and his fellow soldiers came home from the war, they felt far from honored.

For him, and for the other nearly 100 veterans on the Village Green Saturday afternoon, the unveiling of New Milford’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial symbolized a long-awaited recognition for their service.

“It finally gives us some closure,” Coppola said. “It seems that our community and other communities are finally recognizing that we were soldiers and we did the job that we were required to do.”

The memorial, a bronze plaque mounted on black granite, was added to the back of the All War Monument on the south end of the green. It was revealed in a ceremony Saturday after nearly a year of planning by the town’s Veterans Committee and other town officials.

New Milford resident and veteran Ray Crawford, who designed the memorial, said he went through about 10 drafts before landing on the final design. He decided to use black granite to match the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., which had inspired the town’s own memorial after a 250-foot replica of the Washington version, called the Wall That Heals, visited New Milford last year.

Mayor David Gronbach said that it was after the five-day installation of the replica that Ray Crawford and other veterans began thinking of how to create a memorial for the town’s Vietnam veterans. The Town Council voted in April to spend $3,500 to pay for the project.

New Milford is home to a “tremendous amount” of veterans, Gronbach said, many of whom are just recently making their stories known.

“We’re trying to bring these people out to say thank you and give them the thank you they never got,” Gronbach said. “People keep telling me their personal stories from when they came back. They didn’t get a handshake and a salute, I mean, they had people spitting on them and they couldn’t wear their uniform. So, having this recognition 40 years after the fact it means a lot to them.”

U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.), who is on the House Veteran’s Affairs Committee, told the crowd Saturday that the new memorial will mirror the meaning of the Wall That Heals as “New Milford’s own permanent wall of respect and rememberance.”

“You’d be hard pressed to find a community not only in Connecticut but anywhere in America that treasures and honors its veterans as much as New Milford does,” she said.

Another Vietnam veteran, Martin Titus, said the New Milford memorial is even more meaningful to him than when he visited the Washington version, because it’s in his own community.

Titus’ friend Rich MacNeil, who served in the Navy, said it was emotional to see the New Milford memorial finally unveiled.

“It’s about time,” MacNeil said. “It’s nice to finally have a thank you.”

aquinn@newstimes.com