For Vietnam War veteran Paul Cheng Jr. of Hollis Hills, Queens, looking back at old photographs from his military days and reflecting on the significance of his Purple Heart brings mixed feelings.
“A lot of people have seen this. I used to have it in my office for a long time,” said Cheng, speaking about his Purple Heart. “They would say, ‘You’re a hero.’ No, I’m not. I’m the one that stayed alive and everyone else who didn’t come back are the heroes.”
Cheng grew up in Chinatown and was a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Hartford when he was drafted to fight in Vietnam.
He received a Purple Heart after his left leg was badly wounded in an attack.
More than 50 years later, Cheng's wartime experience as an Army Sergeant and Medic is not a topic that he likes to talk about, not even with his children.
“I don’t want them to know,” Cheng said. “I don’t want them to even hear about some of the horrors of friends dying in my arms. Seeing body parts everywhere. The smell, the smell of rotting bodies, body parts.”
What Cheng does like to talk about is his family, including the joys of being a husband, father, and grandfather to three girls, including Victoria, the youngest, who was born in late October, and his eldest granddaughter, eight-year-old Charlotte Lam.
“I just like to spend time with him,” Lam told NY1.
Cheng is extremely proud to come from an Asian-American family that has served in the U.S. military for generations. His father and both grandfathers served in World War II. His maternal grandfather was a Merchant Marine.
“One of the stories he told me once was he was on a ship in the Atlantic as a seaman,” said Cheng. “It got torpedoed from under him and I was like ‘holy mackerel!’”
Cheng was set to travel to Washington this year to accept a Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of his father and grandfathers at an event celebrating the military service of Chinese-Americans in the World War II.
The pandemic put those plans on hold.
Concerns about coronavirus also forced the cancellation of the annual Little Neck-Douglaston Memorial Day Parade, where he was supposed to be Grand Marshal.
Disappointing, for sure, but Cheng has persevered no matter the challenges, and he is grateful that his military training taught him important lessons that helped him carve a successful career in finance in the health care industry.
“The thing that they taught us well was teamwork. In order to survive, you have to know teamwork,” said Cheng, as he tried to hold back tears. “You have to be able to depend on the person next to you, what they’re going to do, and you know what you have to do.”