BERLIN - Elaine Pavasaris gladly stood in a downpour Tuesday to honor her brother Private First Class John Grasso Jr., by reading his name along with 29 others during the commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“It was pouring rain,” she recalled Thursday. “There were no tents, we were out in the open with only an umbrella. I was drenched, but it was a small sacrifice to pay to honor him.”
Her older brother was the first New Britain resident to die in the Vietnam War.
It was November of 1965 and Pavasaris was 12 years old when her family received a telegram on a Saturday telling them that the fun loving 22-year-old who enjoyed being a ham radio operator with his cousin Don Rio had died while serving in the Army during the Vietnam War.
Rio and his new wife, who lived downstairs from the Grasso’s on Fairview Street, had been at a wedding that day. They came home and were preparing to go to movies when they could hear crying and screaming from upstairs. “My uncle came down and said Johnny was dead,” Rio recalled as he choked back tears. He admitted that even 52 years later, the loss of his cousin and close friend still tears at his heart.
They were fast friends from the start, he said. “We got lost together,” explained Rio who was 11 months older than his cousin. “I was two and he was a little over 1 years old. I took him in a carriage two-and-a-half miles away. The police found us on Rocky Hill Avenue. We hung around together ever since we were born. We were like brothers.”
Grasso liked to play jokes and was very friendly, Rio said. “He was a very happy person, and he was very good in school,” Rio said. “He went to New England Technical School and was a ham radio operator,” said Rio who still remembers his cousin’s ham radio call sign, K1IKJ. “You don’t forget something like that.”
Pavasaris remembers her parents crying when they read the telegram and former Mayor Paul Manafort being at the airport with her family when his casket arrived days later. Her brother died at a time when the country was in turmoil. “They were not treated well,” she said of Vietnam veterans. “I think now we’re better at honoring our veterans.”
John Grasso was a good older brother who didn’t mind his pesky younger sisters coming into his room, said Pavasaris who lives in Berlin. “He loved being a ham radio operator, we have a lot of good memories with him,” she said. “He was always smiling. He took us ice skating when we were little. Every Sunday we would all go to St. Ann’s Church, 10 a.m. Mass as a family.”
He had expressed his weariness of being out in the field during the war to Rio in a letter that arrived just days before he died. “This is going to be a real long one and will last after Christmas,” he said of the mission he was on. “I’m getting a little bit tired of this,” he went on to say.
Throughout the years Pavasaris has found ways to honor her brother in her personal life and in her business, the Berlin-based Home Sweet Home reality.
A friend recently asked if she was participating in the 35th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. and she decided to learn more about it. “I said, you know I would love to do that for my brother,” she recalled. “If you are a family member you can ask to read the name.”
Pavasaris traveled to Washington D.C. Tuesday to participate in the week-long event which features volunteers and family members reading all 58,000 names of those who perished in the Vietnam War. She also read 29 names of people who died between November and December of 1965. “I got to say ‘my brother John Grasso,” she said. She also did some rubbings of his name on the wall to give to her children and left a note telling him that he will never be forgotten.
“I said we love him and would never forget him,” she said. “He’s a true American hero and I thanked him for all he did.”
Lisa Backus can be reached at 860-801-5066 or Lbackus@centralctcommunications.com. Follow Lisa Backus on Twitter @LbackusNBH.