Connellsville native honored during ceremony at Vietnam memorial
Robert James Benzio, a Connellsville native who served in the Navy from 1965 through 1969, never talked much about his time in the war, but he was proud of having served.
According to David Benzio, his brother, Robert Benzio was a 50-caliber gunner aboard a river patrol boat in Vietnam.
“He only spoke about the war three times,” said his brother, David, who lives near Connellsville.
But those conversations were enough to keep David, who served in the Army air defense command, from volunteering for Vietnam service.
“I was all gung ho until I talked to him,” said David Benzio.
Robert Benzio, who died of cancer on Sept. 19, 2001, was honored in a special service recently at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., with 120 other veterans. Those 121 served in the war but had their lives cut short by their service.
Robert Benzio's second wife, Jonell, 60, who lives near State College, attended the ceremony. She said the information on the 121, including their photos, will eventually be placed in a new museum being planned for the memorial.
Jonell said any Vietnam veteran who died of cancer may be honored by a ceremony and a spot in the future museum.
The immediate thought might be if Benzio's cancer was the result of contact with Agent Orange, the defoliant made from dioxin, among other chemical ingredients. The Veterans Administration now classifies chronic B-cell leukemia as a cancer caused by contact with the substance.
Jonell said she does not know if her husband had been exposed to Agent Orange during his tour. His cancer started in his lungs, then spread to his brain.
“I really don't know that,” she said about possible Agent Orange exposure.
She said her husband almost never talked about his Vietnam service.
Jonell said Robert's first wife died after they divorced. They had a son, Robert Jr. who is now about 45. Jonell and Robert had two daughters, Sara, 30, and Katharine, 29.
David and Jonell both said Robert was a “very caring” individual. He worked for the State Department of Public Welfare in Centre County after graduating from The Pennsylvania State University. Jonell also worked for DPW in the same office. She said her husband also helped start the Centre County food bank.
Karl Polacek is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 724-626-3538.