He goes by Father Martino, in homage to St. Martin de Porres, who dedicated his life to working with the poor and seeking harmony. The Rev. Nguyen Thong Ba, in reality, is a Vietnamese immigrant who offered his never-ending gratitude for the American servicemembers who fought and died in his homeland decades ago.
“It is great to stand on the land of the free and it is a humble experience for me to be in the presence of all the brave, those who have served this country faithfully,” said Father Martino, the keynote speaker at Monday’s Memorial Day ceremony at Veterans Park. “From the bottom of my heart, thank you for your service.”
Father Martino’s parents worked for the U.S. government. When the forces of Communist North Vietnam overran the South Vietnam capital, Saigon, his mother and father were imprisoned in what were termed “re-education camps.” His mother was pregnant and she was released when she was seven months along in her pregnancy.
His mother was homeless, and he was born on the streets of Saigon. They lived there until his father was released after more than 10 years in a Vietnamese prison.
The family made its way to the U.S. in 1993 when Father Martino was 17. He spoke no English at the time, but he graduated from high school two years later and earned a degree from the University of Wisconsin.
Father Martino said he worked on his speech for two-and-a-half months, but he chose instead to speak from his heart Monday evening.
“The word free is not what we say — it is what we believe,” he said. “It is what we fight for, what we have shed our blood and what we are willing to die for. Look at all these names — I am unworthy to stand in their presence. I have given some, but they have given everything they had.”
The pastor at St. Boniface Catholic Church in Springfield, Father Martino came to the parish from Americus. There, he was friends with former president Jimmy Carter.
On his way to St. Boniface for the first time, he passed by the Veterans Park.
“That was my first stop in Effingham County,” he said. “It has been a regular stop for me the last 11 months, countless times.”
For All Souls Day, he made sure he wasn’t alone in visiting the park.
“I took my whole church, including all the children in the Sunday school program, out here to pray,” Father Martino said, “because it is important.”
Rincon Mayor Ken Lee thanked the crowd in attendance for seeing the importance of being at Veterans Park for Memorial Day.
“We celebrate a lot of days, a lot of events in this country,” Lee said, “but I can’t think of any two that are more important to us than our independence celebration on the 4th of July and Memorial Day, when we recognize the men and women who gave all that we might be able to enjoy the independence and the freedoms we have enjoyed.”
Lamar Crosby, who fought in the Vietnam War, called Memorial Day “a very special day.”
“It is the one time a year when the nation stops and truly gives thanks to our service members who have given their lives for our country,” he said. “We are what we are today as a country because of those people.”
Crosby also noted the new flagpole for the POW/MIA flag, made possible by a donation from American Legion Post 209.
As Effingham Health System CEO Norma Jean Morgan read the names of Effingham residents killed in action in America’s war, Father Martino said he was struck by the number of Effingham servicemembers killed in Vietnam.
“As a first generation Vietnamese-American, I say, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for being there,” he said. “Thank you for your fight. You give us the true idea of what freedom is about. Freedom is not free. It has been the cost of blood. Understand that we will do everything we can to respect the sacrifices you have made. It will never, ever be forgotten.”