Fifty years later, Vietnam veteran hopes care packages to troops will continue to raise morale

  • Purple Heart Vietnam War veteran Jim Covaluccio at his home in Center Barnstead on Tuesday. Covaluccio sent a popcorn maker to Baghdad for troops Oct. 8, and says it was returned without explanation. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Purple Heart Vietnam War veteran Jim Covaluccio discusses the package he sent to troops in Iraq at his home in Center Barnstead on Tuesday. Covaluccio sent a popcorn maker to Baghdad on Oct. 8, only to have the package sent back without any explanation given. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Purple Heart Vietnam veteran Jim Covaluccio can't believe the package he sent to troops in Iraq was sent back. Covaluccio sent a popcorn maker to Bagdad for the troops on October 8th, only to have the package sent back without any reason for it being sent back. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 10/29/2019 7:08:59 PM

The Vietnam veteran saw the look of despair on his neighbors’ faces and instantly thought about chocolate-chip cookies.

He thought about crackers and socks as well, about putting the word “care” in care package. That had meant so much to Jim Covalucci of Center Barnstead when bullets were flying and red ants were biting in that jungle 50 years ago.

Certainly a care package, the Purple Heart winner correctly figured, would help raise spirits in this case, too. The spirits of the young man, whom Covalucci had watched grow up, sent to Iraq. The spirits of the parents who had hoped that day would never come, and the spirits of the sender himself.

“I saw the sadness on his mother’s and father’s face once they found out he was going over there,” Jim Covalucci said Tuesday. “I did it to relieve some of that sadness.”

Covalucci, 70, spent four months in Vietnam in 1969, a 20-year-old squad leader who was hit by three bullets and nearly died. A buddy of his, a guy called Little John, took those same three bullets once they had bounced off bones and exited Covalucci’s body.

Little John died a week later. Covalucci went home to Massachusetts, worked for Boston Edison for 37 years and then moved into his Center Barnstead lake house full-time with his wife and daughter in 2006, after having used it as a summer and weekend home for 20 years.

And while Vietnam veterans like Covalucci have plenty of bad memories connected to their experience during the war, simple items that we all take for granted – boxed, wrapped and delivered thousands of miles to an area hard to pronounce – softened the culture shock and fear that hit troops over there like a hard rain.

“Anything we got made us happy,” Covalucci told me.

His story, the one he wanted told here, concerns the popcorn maker he sent to Iraq earlier this month. The one that he got back in the mail last weekend, for no apparent reason. It sits in his garage, a 35-pound slice of American life that Covalucci assumed would be no different than the approximately two dozen other packages he’s sent that successfully reached Baghdad.

And while this is a serious topic of great importance, it was not without humor. Un-popped popcorn, you see, was sent to Iraq, right along with that popcorn maker.

The popcorn, though, never came back, prompting Covalucci to complain, “They usually put a reason on the package as to why it was refused. I am pissed off because I got 79 soldiers who got 50 pounds of popcorn and they have no (expletive) way to cook it.”

The other stuff, Covalucci assumes, made it to Iraq. Those aforementioned cookies and crackers and socks. Plus wipes and magazines and notebook paper and pens and toothpaste and items made exclusively for women, of which there are 11 among the 79 soldiers who began receiving these care packages two months ago.

All of which brought Covalucci back to the war. His war. The one he fought in at the age of 20. The same age as his neighbor now serving in Iraq.

“I watched him grow up,” Covalucci told me. “Just a nice boy.”

Covalucci has been married for 28 years. He has a daughter who graduated from Bishop Brady High School. He was a single guy when duty called in 1969. He was a squad leader, responsible for the lives of others. He said the jungle was wet, with more than one enemy fighting against him and his men.

“It was rainy, and the worst thing we bumped into in our armored personnel carriers were these trees,” Covalucci said, “and red ants would come down and bite the (stuff) out of you. You had to strip right then and there.”

Covalucci also mentioned water buffalo.

“They never liked us,” he said. “They hated GIs. I always walked next to a guy who had an m60 machine gun, because the m16 bullets wouldn’t do anything.”

During his time there, Covalucci said he received a care package every other week. They came from his parents, of course, and they came from others, like the woman who owned the neighborhood bar back home. The watering hole frequented by Covalucci’s father, who’d meet his bookie there, and the bar in which Covalucci later became a regular.

“It was my dad’s favorite place,” Covalucci said.

While the father sat with friends and worried over here, the son created strong bonds over there.

That included Little John, so named because he stood only 5-feet tall. Covalucci, 5-foot-7 and wiry, just as he is 50 years later, rushed forward to an enemy bunker. He told Little John to stay put.

Instead, Little John followed.

“He did not stay back,” Covalucci said. “The bullets that hit me bounced off my bones and hit him.”

Covalucci got hit in the side, the shoulder blade and the elbow. He and Little John were dragged away from small-arms fire and transported by helicopter.

“The last words he spoke to me were, ‘Jimmy, it hurts so bad,’ ” Covalucci recalled. “I replied, ‘Little John, I don’t feel too good either.’ ”

Covalucci spent time in a hospital in Japan. Little John was brought there, too. He died on Aug. 16, 1969.

When Covalucci returned to Massachusetts, his duty wasn’t finished. In 1970, he went to Little John’s home in Saxon, W.Va., to visit his friend’s parents and brothers. He found a poor family of coal miners. He felt he owed them information.

“I was his squad leader and I was responsible for him,” Covalucci said. “I wanted the family to find out how he passed. There’s a need to know.”

Fast forward nearly 50 years. Covalucci never forgot those care packages, which were delivered to the jungle along with regular supplies, such as food and water and ammunition.

He plans on contacting Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, searching for information as to why that popcorn machine never made it to Iraq.

Lots of other stuff, however, did.

“We’d open and we’d share it,” Covalucci said. “Everyone would get them and we’d all share. We were closer than brothers.”

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