For years, he hid his service in Asia from anyone besides other vets. It took more than a decade before someone finally told him the two words he needed to hear: ‘welcome back’
For Tony Cubellis, joining the Navy in 1962 was simply a way to escape a dire situation.
Admittedly, he hadn’t had the best childhood, growing up in Newcastle, a small town in western Pennsylvania’s steel country. He came from a poor family, he struggled in school, his mother died when he was in grade school and he spent most of his high school years living with a stepfamily.
Assessing his life after graduating from high school in his blue-collar town, Cubellis said he tried to imagine his future — and saw few options.
“I was not a good student and the likelihood for me to go to college and play sports wasn’t good because I was 5-foot-8 and it was football country. I had no athletic scholarship or prowess, we weren’t rich and we didn’t know anybody,” he said. “My options were for me to join the service, become a priest, have a family, be a cop, or stick around town and work at a steel mill. (In joining the service) I was getting out of town the only way I could, to gain an education I couldn’t afford otherwise. It was a way for me to get away from a bad situation.”
Four years later, when Cubellis got out of the service, he was proud that he’d volunteered to serve his country and had played a role in the Vietnam theater.
Upon returning to the U.S., though, he found there was a large percentage of people who not only weren’t warmly welcoming back and thanking veterans, but also outright disagreed with what they’d done. For Cubellis, some of the images he can’t shake from the Vietnam era came not from action in Southeast Asia, but from the streets of his own country.
Truthfully, Cubellis said, his time in the Vietnam theater was neither very dangerous nor exciting.
“I was not a ground pounder, I make no claim to that,” he said. “There were guys who really did a job there and deserve all the credit. I was a support guy, when you get right down to it. I have campaign ribbons because I was in that theater.”
Cubellis, a technician in the Naval Air Maintenance Division of Patrol Squadron Two, served two nine-month tours in Asia, the first in Iwo Kuni, Japan, the second in Okinawa.
Jokingly, Cubellis said his job was to be a regulation sailor: “I’d pull liberty and get drunk and chase women.”
In reality, he spent the majority of his time fixing the magnetic anomaly detection gear — used to detect minute variations in the Earth’s magnetic field — on Lockheed P2Vs, which were used primarily for monitoring troop and supply movement on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia.
Using the MAD gear, the P2Vs could fly over the dense jungle and detect concentrations of enemy troops by the magnetic signatures of their metal weapons and equipment.
“I managed to do my job, and I did my best,” Cubellis said.
By the time Cubellis was discharged from active duty in late 1965, fighting in Vietnam had yet to reach its height.
“It was a cowboy war (when I was there),” he said. “People went there to get their pictures taken with campaign hats on and bandoliers and ammo slung around them, holding an AK-47. It didn’t start getting really serious until the Tet Offensive (in 1968).”
Nonetheless, when Cubellis returned to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, where he’d been stationed before heading to Japan, he felt good about what he’d accomplished.
“When I came back, I was pretty proud of what I had done,” he said. “I’d logged four years and three months for my country, doing the best I could do, and I halfway anticipated that people would recognize that. Instead, the mood was ugly. There were people I saw spit on because they wore their uniform.”
Rather than debate protesters, Cubellis instead wanted to attempt to do something he’d never really done before — be a part of a community.
“I’m not a brave man. I’m a coward, when you get down to it, but I had ribbons I was proud of and I wouldn’t wear them because I knew that if I did it would cause arguments and I’d have to defend what I did. I wanted to fit in, so I never talked about (the war).”
For years, Cubellis pushed the Vietnam War to the back of his mind, only talking about it with other veterans. In the meantime, he continued to ease into adulthood.
He married a Bellingham woman, Patricia Walton, whom he’d dated before going overseas, despite an inauspicious start to their relationship.
“We went out on a blind date and we didn’t get along,” Cubellis said. “She didn’t want to date me and I thought she was stuck up.”
Cubellis also began taking on jobs of increasing importance.
When he first arrived in Bellingham, he was given a job at the newly opened Taco Time by owner Hal March, who wanted to help out a returning veteran. He then moved on to become a pastry chef at the Bon Marche, and then a Kirby vacuum salesman.
Cubellis first considered a move to the insurance industry when, over lunch, Robert Veilleuex of Prudential Financial helped him switch his servicemember’s life insurance to basic life insurance, and asked Cubellis if he’d ever considered working in the field.
Cubellis heard him out, and then met with a regional manager in Everett about the field’s potential. A big fan of the James Bond movies, he decided to make the jump when he learned his business card would say “special agent” on it.
Over the years, Cubellis, 61, has obtained his master’s degree in financial sciences and moderated classes on life insurance. In 1980, he became an independent life insurance agent, founding Northwest Capital Conservers, Inc., on Northwest Avenue. He has two children, three grandchildren and one great grandson.
Several years ago, however, some old feelings about Vietnam returned to the fore when he was approached by another veteran, Ken Richardson, at a local Vietnam Veterans Association meeting.
Richardson extended a hand and said to Cubellis two words no one had ever spoken to him since he’d returned from his tours: Welcome back.
Cubellis was overcome with emotion.
“World War II vets and Korean vets were welcomed back and accepted into the community as vets. Vietnam vets had not been accepted back as vets. They’d been accepted back as (individuals) or businessmen, but not as veterans, and that’s pretty important. Today I can look back and say that’s a disservice to vets.”
Cubellis continued, “They did something pretty spectacular. Some of them lost limbs; some lost lives. They certainly lost time, in service to their country. And they did it not because they had to, they chose to.”
While a draft was instituted during the Vietnam War, Cubellis said those who were selected for service did have ways around going.
“I have nothing against anybody who avoided going, but they damn sure better not have anything against me for serving. I respect people who do what they think they ought to do and, to me, that’s what Vietnam was all about,” he said. “I don’t really give a damn about whether we were wrong or right or fought a losing war, we
responded to our country’s call. Isn’t that what we’re about?”
With many Vietnam War protesters and veterans now in their 60s, Cubellis said, a lot of them are coming to terms with the realization that they won’t live forever. With that comes revisiting unsettled business.
“In my opinion, the country has finally realized it screwed up. With the Boomers, everything has been special for them. They were the key to Haight-Ashbury, they were the ‘60s, they were the protesters. Well, they’re now realizing they’re mortal and are going to die, and with that comes angst and looking at their life and where you think you might have screwed up. You try to redress some of the things you did for your own benefit to feel better about yourself. I think that’s part of the Vietnam phenomenon.”
For Cubellis, coming to terms with the past means, among other things, no longer being afraid to wear his ribbons and being vocal with his feelings about Vietnam.
Once timid about discussing his veteran status, he now declares it proudly.
“If I was on my deathbed today, all I know is that I did what I had to do as an American citizen and nobody can take that away from me. Nor will I let them attempt to do so.”