Vigil set for those soldiers who didn't return from the war in Vietnam

| Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Michael Estocin's Navy jet was shot down over Vietnam more than four decades ago.

“He's been missing as long as me and my wife have been married — 46 years,” said his brother, John Estocin, 72, of Turtle Creek.

Then-Lt. Cmdr. Michael Estocin, a Medal of Honor recipient, went down over Haiphong on April 26, 1967, when the jet was hit by shrapnel from an exploding surface-to-air missile. Because of cloud cover, it's not known whether he ejected from his Douglas A-4E Skyhawk attack plane.

“War is one of the worst things that can happen to any family,” John Estocin said.

The loss of his brother was especially difficult on their parents, Mary and Michael.

“They had a tough time living with it,”John Estocin said. “He was shot down the day before his birthday.”

A military commission declared Michael Estocin “dead/body not recovered” in November 1977.

He and other Vietnam War soldiers who did not return will be remembered this weekend at the Vietnam Veterans Inc. annual POW/MIA vigil on Saturday and Sunday in Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum. The ceremony begins at noon Saturday and concludes at 2 p.m. Sunday in Oakland.

“It's bad enough to lose someone in combat, but the not knowing is the worst,” said T.J. McGarvey, 70, of Upper St. Clair, who served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968 as a corporal with the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, and has been involved with the vigil since 1980.

McGarvey said the vigil honors those who didn't get to hear two precious words: “Welcome home.”

After opening ceremonies, the public can help honor those unaccounted for by bearing the U.S. flag for 15-minute intervals.

“That flag doesn't touch the ground for 26 hours,” said Pat Ferris, 69, of McCandless, president of Vietnam Veterans Inc., Pittsburgh. “It's very meaningful for a lot of the guys. It's a solemn event for all of us.”

The names of about 35 soldiers listed as prisoners of war or missing in action from the Pittsburgh region will be read during a candlelight vigil at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

“You don't forget,” said Robert “Butch” Burke, 69, of Brentwood, who was a sergeant with the Army's 46th Engineering Battalion in Vietnam from 1965 to 1967 and heads the vigil committee. “You hold that flag, and something comes around you, and you reflect, ‘Why me? Why not them?' ”

Many veterans can't get through the vigil without becoming emotional, Burke and McGarvey said.

Frances Colletto lost a son in Vietnam 44 years ago but gained a brotherhood.

“I'm related to them all. They're all my boys,” said Colletto, who turned 99 on Thursday and is the oldest Gold Star Mother from Vietnam in the group's Allegheny County chapter.

Her son, Army Pfc. Albert V. Colletto Jr., 20, died Aug. 12, 1969, of wounds suffered during a firefight in A Shau Valley. She has attended the POW/MIA vigils for decades.

“It's very important to her,” said her daughter, Carolyn Stewart, 76, of Morningside. “There's a closeness there with the boys.”

Established in 1928 by mothers who had sons in World War I, the American Gold Star Mothers organization includes women across the country who lost sons or daughters in military service. There are about 2,500 members. The Allegheny chapter has about 25 members.

Craig Smith is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at

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