Specialist Tony Vancheri has been a New Jersey Devils fan since 1982, coming to a few games a season since the franchise came to the Garden State. The Vietnam War veteran was honored by the team during its December 6 duel with the Florida Panthers at Prudential Center.
Drafted in 1968, Vancheri served as a medic, treating members of the United States military, civilians, the army of the Repubic of Vietnam, and even fighters with the Viet Cong. “We had to save them because they could give us information that could save another soldier’s life,” Vancheri explained.
Vancheri, now 67, had no medical background when he was drafted at 19 years old, but during basic training expressed interest in becoming a medic. After 10 weeks of school at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio Texas, Vancheri was sent to Alabama where he gave physicals to helicopter pilots bound for the war. Everything changed for him when he learned of the death of a close friend that he went to elementary school and basic training with, who was killed in action. “When I found out the news, I volunteered to go to Vietnam. Eventually I went in January 1969.”
After returning to the United States a year later, Vancheri became involved in maintaining and creating monuments for the troops that served from his hometown. He eventually became the superintendent for Paterson’s parks. After noticing less memorials going to the city’s parks than in the past, and after consulting with other veterans and the city’s mayor, the veteran began centralizing the city’s monuments on McBride Avenue.
“As we went along, we added the World War II monument, the Afghanistan, Iraq, the women who served our country.” Excitedly, Vancheri speaks about a Vietnam-era tank. “We’re very proud in the way we are centralizing…It was the right thing to do to honor our brothers and sisters of yesterday and those that are serving today or tomorrow.” Vancheri retired eight years ago from his role with the city of Paterson, but his passion remains.
Beyond his work with memorializing veterans, Vancheri spent five years in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s as New Jersey’s commissioner for Vietnam veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. As time went on helping veterans deal with their trauma, Vancheri said hearing those stories brought back memories of his own. “It’s very personal,” he said.
For his service, Vancheri received the New Jersey Distinguished Service Medal in 2003, an honor awarded to the veterans who served in warzones. Vancheri said he appreciated the honors, including tonight’s Hero of the Game recognition. “I’m grateful that the Devils recognize the veterans of yesterday and today…I didn’t get a parade when I came home.”
“This is my team. I’ve been here since 1982 when they moved to New Jersey,” Vancheri said. Following the team from the start, Vancheri referred to Ken Daneyko as his all-time favorite player. With his sons, Vancheri also rooted for John MacLean and Martin Brodeur. Vancheri said he does not have a favorite player yet among the current squad, jokingly saying, “I want to win the Stanley Cup [again] before I can pick another favorite.”
Vancheri said that the Devils winning their first Stanley Cup in 1995 stood out as his greatest memory of the team. “I had my boys with me, we were watching and we went crazy…we were running out into the street with the banner.” Vancheri said he hopes to see another Stanley Cup in the next ten years.