Ex-Riverhead VFW Post Commander Joseph Edler, left, with Anthony Meras, third generation proprietor of Papa Nick's, and Shali Potter Vitello at the luncheonette on Thursday. Vitello and Edler's fallen war buddy shared a hometown in upstate New York. Photo: Denise Civiletti

The burly Army veteran still cuts an imposing figure that belies his 79 years.

But in 1967, Joseph Edler was a lanky 22-year-old Brooklyn boy, a high school graduate working as a machinist when he was drafted into the Army. It was at the height of the escalation of the Vietnam War and during a time when the number of men drafted by the military was nearly double what it had been before the escalation. It was also near the peak of annual U.S. military casualties in Southeast Asia.

Edler was recently engaged to the girl who would become his wife.

“Her mother said we couldn’t get married until I did my time,” Edler recalled. “So I pushed my draft up.”

By mid-summer 1967, Edler was in Chu Lai, Quảng Nam Province, Vietnam. There he became friends with another solider that Edler had a lot in common with. Phil Cirillo was also 22, also engaged, also from New York. The two quickly became close.

In January of 1968, Edler and Cirillo were in the jungle with their unit.

“We were getting re-supplied by helicopter. So they send up outposts to just make sure we don’t get overrun. We went up on one side of a hill,” Edler recalled.

“He went over the top and I was halfway up and I caught the shrapnel right across my middle,” Edler said. He went down. “The C.O. and some other guys came running up the hill. They checked me out. I was all right, just lying there, and they went up to check Phil and… found him dead.”

Joseph Edler of Aquebogue, 79, Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient with a photo of himself taken after he entered the Army in 1967. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Edler went back to the field after being treated at a hospital. The following month brought another brush with tragedy, another close call.

“We were out on a training mission with the South Vietnam army, where they train four of their men with four of ours. We were out. We got overrun. And I was the only American to come out of there alive,” he said.

After that, he was sent back to the field but shortly thereafter, he came down with pneumonia and became gravely ill. “So I was sent back to Da Nang and then I ended up on a plane to Japan. I was in the hospital for two or three months. And then they sent me home,” Edler said.

He returned to the U.S. in August 1968 and was stationed in Fort Dix, New Jersey until his discharge in May of 1969.

More than 55 years later, Edler grows emotional when he tries to talk about his experiences in Vietnam. Choking back tears, he recalls when he tried to make sense of what happened — of why he survived when men he fought side-by-side with were killed — he thought, “I guess God must have something else for me to do.”

He married his fiancee Margaret, they raised five children and today he is a grandfather to 11 and a great-grandfather to eight.

Edler didn’t have a job to return to when he was discharged from the service, he said. He spent most of his working life in construction and maintenance, including 20 years at Brookhaven Hospital in East Patchogue. He moved with his family to the Town of Riverhead 43 years ago, when he took a job as a ranger at the Baiting Hollow scout camp. Edler and his wife have lived in Aquebogue for the past 20 years.

Ex-VFW Post 2476 Commander Joseph Edler, Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient, outside ShopRite in Riverhead Nov. 5, distributing Buddy Poppies and raising money for the Buddy Poppy program. Photo: Denise Civiletti

A lifetime member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he served as commanding officer of the Van Rensselaer Skidmore Post 2476 in Riverhead from 2010 to 2013. He is active in his church, serving as an usher at St. John the Evangelist Church in Riverhead.

Edler continues to quietly do what he can to help other veterans. He organizes the annual poppy fundraising drive for the Riverhead VFW, recruiting members to solicit donations for the Buddy Poppy program, a 101-year-old program that raises money to support veterans.

This past weekend, Edler himself spent 27 hours standing outside a local supermarket collecting donations and distributing the paper poppies that are assembled in VA hospitals and homes across the country. Riverhead VFW members manned posts all weekend outside every supermarket across town, raising $10,000 for the program, Edler said with pride.

He’s led a fulfilling life, he said. But he had one wish that was unfulfilled. Finding and meeting the family of his buddy Phil and visiting his grave.

In March 2012, Edler said, he finally got the paperwork with the information on Phil and the other three American soldiers who were killed at his side in two separate battles in the winter of 1968.

The Edlers went to the traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, the 375-foot replica of the Washington, D.C. memorial, last month when it was installed at Tanner Park in Copaigue.

They made rubbings of the names of the four fallen soldiers Edler knew: Philip M. Cirillo of Herkimer, New York; William H. Goins of Franklin, Tennessee, David L. Smith of Marrero, Louisiana and Richard D. Williams of San Bernardino, California.

Joseph Edler, left, and his wife Margaret, right, with Jim and Shali Vitello of East Setauket in a booth at Papa Nick’s on Thursday morning. Photo: Denise Civiletti

And then, a random conversation with another couple at Papa Nick’s on Main Street led Edler to Phil’s surviving family.

The Edlers have breakfast at the iconic downtown luncheonette three days a week. They would see the other couple there once a week, but didn’t know them or even speak to them more than a polite greeting.

Jim and Shali Vitello of East Setauket are retired teachers who have breakfast at Papa Nick’s on Thursdays, when they have a weekly outing in Riverhead. On Oct. 7, the Vitellos found themselves sitting in a booth across from the Edlers and the two couples struck up a conversation.

“We had just been to the traveling wall,” Edler said.

“Maybe 15 minutes later, I think the Lord told Joe to pull out his phone, to show us pictures of his buddies lost in Vietnam,” Shali Vitello said. She took his phone to look at the photos — images of the soldiers’ memorial pages from the Virtual Wall website.

“When I swiped to the fourth one, I saw ‘Philip Cirillo, Herkimer, New York.’ I looked at Joe and said, ‘I’m from Herkimer.’”

Edler recalled how the woman held his phone to her heart and grew emotional when she saw Phil’s page.

“I can promise you I can go home today and find someone who knows his family,” Vitello, who moved to Long Island when she married her college sweetheart, Jim, of Smithtown, told Edler that day.

Herkimer, a village on the Mohawk River and the county seat of Herkimer County in upstate New York, currently has a population of just under 7,300. In the late 1960s, the population of the village was about 11,500, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Vitello did a Google search and found Cirillo’s obituary. His surviving family included a sister named Victoria Worlock, who lived in Herkimer. She found a listing for Victoria Worlock, called the number and started leaving a message, using her maiden name, Potter. Before she finished her message, the woman picked up the phone.

Worlock, now 84, is Phil’s older sister. She told Vitello she never thought she’d be able to meet one of Phil’s buddies from Vietnam, one of the guys who knew the young solider in what would be the last days of his too-short life.

“She agreed to let me give her number to Joe,” Vitello said. “She told me to please tell them I love them with all my heart.”

When Vitello hung up the phone, she realized she had no way to reach Joe. In fact, she didn’t even know his last name.

“I knew I couldn’t wait till the following Thursday to tell Joe,” she said. She would call the luncheonette on the off chance that someone would know Joe’s last name.

Joseph and Margaret Eder with Anthony Meras at Papa Nick’s on Thursday. Photo: Denise Civiletti

When she called early the next morning, Anthony Meras, the third-generation proprietor of Star Confectionary — affectionately known by locals as Papa Nick’s — answered the phone.

Papa Nick’s being Papa Nick’s, and Meras being Meras — of course he knew Joe, one of his regulars. He didn’t have his phone number, Meras told her, but he did know his last name. With another Google search, Vitello quickly found a phone listed to Margaret Edler. She called the Edlers to tell them the good news.

“God wanted this to happen,” Vitello said.

An excited but nervous Edler promptly made the call. Before long, there was a plan in place for the Edlers to visit Herkimer for Veteran’s Day.

Edler bought a Vietnam War grave marker to place on Phil’s grave when he paid his respects at Calvary Cemetery.

He and his wife drove upstate with their daughter and her fiancé Friday to meet Phil’s sister and other family members and visit his grave. On Saturday, they will attend the Veterans Day ceremony at the Michael S. Pliseck VFW Post 4915 in Herkimer, named for a native son killed in action in Italy during World War II, which has a room dedicated to Specialist Four Philip M. Cirillo.

“Victoria’s grandson is singing the National Anthem at the ceremony,” Vitello said.

The family still does everything it can to keep their fallen hero’s memory alive. Phil’s father had planted a tree for him in a local park.

“Victoria still keeps in touch with Phil’s fiancée,” Vitello said.

For them, and others who lost loved ones in the war, life would never be the same again.

For survivors of those battles, men like Edler, the war took a different but devastating toll, one that they’ve carried with them the rest of their lives. It’s a toll measured in battle scars and bits of shrapnel still buried in their flesh. It’s a toll in emotions that remain difficult to reckon with: lingering, unanswered questions about why they survived when their buddies just a few feet away were felled by enemy fire, and the scorn of fellow citizens who saw their uniforms during the hugely unpopular war as a symbol of disgrace rather than a mark of pride.

Connecting with his buddy Phil’s sister after all these years hit Edler like a bolt of lightning.

“He was crying for a half-hour,” Margaret Edler said.

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