For Stephen Budihas, the memorial marker was a long time coming.
Budihas began a quest several years ago to place a commemorative plaque in Van Cortlandt Park’s Memorial Grove honoring Roger C. Brathwaite, a local resident who served in the U.S. Army and was killed in battle in the A Shau Valley in Vietnam’s Thua Thien-Hue province in 1969.
But over the years, Budihas’ journey to honor Brathwaite’s memory transformed into a mission to honor all Bronx residents who fought and served during the Vietnam War. And thanks to those enduring efforts clearing many hurdles with local government, a marker has now been placed in the grove — on the western edge of the park, a little south of West 246th Street.
Brathwaite was a “local guy” who lived on West 230th Street, a conscientious objector and, as Budihas recalls, a member of the Pentecostal church, as well as a concert pianist. In the Army, he became a combat medic, assigned to Budihas’ infantry platoon in the 101st Airborne Division, where Budihas served as sergeant-in-charge.
“He was bold, he was courageous, he was loving,” Budihas said. “He took care of us all, whether we were sick, whether we were injured. He was a wonderful, wonderful person.”
Brathwaite — nicknamed “Doc Lefty” because he was left-handed — tended to the platoon “as if we were family,” Budihas said.
That included making sure soldiers took their medicine.
“He made sure we took our malaria pills every day,” Budihas said, including Mondays, when they had to take one “about the size of a double nickel. It was very hard to swallow, and he’d make us open our mouths to make sure we actually swallowed the pills.”
Brathwaite also would holler at the men if they took their boots off, Budihas said, or if they didn’t change their socks.
“There were no facilities, naturally,” Budihas said. “We were out in the jungle the whole time, so we had to do our best to try to keep clean, and try to purify water, because we’re drinking out of mud, rice paddies.”
But it also was Brathwaite’s courage that set him apart as a medic, Budihas said.
“A lot of people went to Vietnam and they served as cooks and supply officers and helicopter pilots and clerks of all sorts, and they weren’t in combat,” Budihas said. “Roger, even though he was a non-combatant, he was fearless. He was with us all the time, and always subjected to the dangers, the hazards of being in a combat unit.”
Budihas met Brathwaite in January 1969. Barely seven months later, they found themselves in the midst of what Budihas described as “a terrible, long, devastating firefight.”
“We were attacked by a company of the North Vietnamese regulars,” Budihas said. “These were not any local combatants. These were hardcore regular soldiers. Initially we were pinned down by machine gunfire, rocket-propelled grenades, rifles, automatic weapons.”
Several men were killed. Brathwaite was one of them.
“He was the last guy that should’ve been killed over there,” Budihas said. To this day, he thinks about Doc Lefty.
“You never forget things like combat,” Budihas said. “You never forget men dying and getting destroyed and getting blown up around you.”
The day Brathwaite was killed — July 16 — is burned into Budihas’ memory.
“I was the one that had to tend to him,” Budihas said. “I was the one that put him in the basket. We were so far deep into the jungle nobody could get to us. We had to wait for a helicopter to come in, finally, after the fighting stopped,” and Brathwaite was hauled off.
“It was a very terrible time for me,” Budihas added. “I had to put a lot of men in the basket that day.”
But what are the chances two men from the same part of the Bronx served on the same unit, in the northwest corner of what was then South Vietnam?
“I’ve thought about that a lot,” Budihas said. “I did not know Doc here at home. We met over there for the first time.”
If seven months doesn’t sound like a long time to know someone, it has to be taken in context.
“We were out in the jungle, all the time, on our own,” Budihas said. “When you talk about time over there, you’ve got to understand, it’s 24/7, you’re physically close, a few feet away from each other. It’s not like over here, if you know somebody for that length of time, you see them once in a while.
“You never get as close to anybody in life as you do to the men you serve with in combat.”
Brathwaite’s father, his last direct relative, Budihas said, died about 20 years ago. Budihas contacted Brathwaite’s family in 1969, when they were still living on West 230th, but hasn’t spoken to anyone since then, and doesn’t know of any family members still alive.
Next year marks the 50th anniversary of Brathwaite’s death, and as Budihas sees it, the memorial marker is long overdue. Especially since “almost every county, in towns large and small, have honored the veterans who served in Vietnam,” Budihas said. “And the Bronx has absolutely nothing.”
Until now, that is.
“I’ve always felt that the Bronx veterans who served and sacrificed during that war have never been acknowledged,” Budihas said. “Even when the public started acknowledging us with the wall down in Washington in the ‘80s, and all the smaller memorials around the country, we’re still a footnote.”
Whereas World War II and Korean War veterans are honored regularly, Budihas said, not so for those who served in Vietnam.
“We lost that war, and of course, America doesn’t like to lose wars,” Budihas said. “And I think that people have confounded the loss of a war, the political issues involved, with the valor and the dedication and the sacrifice of the individual soldiers who served during that war and had nothing to do with the political issues.”
For Brathwaite and other Bronx men and women who served in Vietnam, the memorial marker in Van Cortlandt Park is “a small token,” Budihas said. “But at least it’s a token.
“My original intent was to put a face, or a name, as a representative human being, trying to personalize the loss,” he said. “It’s hard to characterize a person who was so important and close to you.”