Fifty years removed from conflict and Vietnam veteran Peter Torrano confesses he still gets subconscious night sweats from time to time. Non-fictional nightmares of things he can’t unsee.
The year is 1949 and Torrano has just been born in a Navy hospital in Queens, N.Y. Unbeknownst to him at the time, but his Italian lineage hails from a long line of family members with a rich military history. Some who even fought on opposite sides.
His upbringing was surrounded by some tough neighborhoods in Yonkers, N.Y., which he said made him street smart. The biggest influence at the time of his late teens was the hype around the height of the Vietnam War.
“I always thought that if guys my age or friends are going to be there, then I should be there too,” Torrano said.
In 1968, at 18 years old, he enlisted in the Army. After completing basic training with an MOS (military occupational specialty) as a helicopter mechanic. He served the next 23 months as a sergeant in the 498th Medical Rescue Company.
When he stepped foot on Vietnamese soil, the first thing that hit him was an overwhelmingly dank, tropical odor. After he got acclimated to the lay of the land, Torrano’s MOS was upgraded to helicopter crew chief where he was responsible for aerially evacuating U.S. airmen and soldiers from combat zones, referred to as “dustoff.”
“If you see the film footage from Vietnam, the helicopters with the red cross on them, that was me,” Torrano said. “We picked up the wounded and the dead.”
During the nearly two years he spent transporting his countrymen through the tumultuous airways overhead Vietnam, Torrano reflected how he rarely got to interact with other crew members because he was never at base for extended periods of time. He was always hovering back and forth from the battlefield, except for during mandatory maintenance for plugging bullet holes or replacing the blades.
Every 25 hours the helicopter would require minimal maintenance and every 100 hours major maintenance would need to be done. Torrano couldn’t calculate how many evacuations he made daily or weekly, but had an estimate of how much time he spent grounded from the hostile skies. Slim to none.
Not all of Torrano’s trips were combat-related missions, some sky miles were spent serving the public. His company also assisted allied South Korean bases, who didn’t have with their own helicopters.
The stories he recalls so vividly are the gruesome encounters when touching down to recover brothers after firefights.
Torrano admits the most psychologically scarring part for him isn’t so much the visuals of bloodshed as it is the emotional strings attached. The task of choosing which soldier to rescue first based on their vital condition is already complex enough.
In most cases there’s a clear-cut choice. Prioritize by first aiding the ones who are alive or have the best chances of survival. However, this one evacuation still lingers in the back of Torrano’s mind today because it became more than just wartime business, it became personal.
As Torrano descended out of the Huey helicopter, he addressed the nearest wounded soldier in need. Immediately he could tell that the young Spanish man, who was the same age as him, was not going to make it. He had a through-and-through gunshot wound in the stomach and it was evident that he wasn’t going to make it.
Torrano fully understood his orders were to retrieve the most able soldiers first and then return for the ones who were too far gone. The objective was to load everyone on the helicopter at once, unless there were too many.
However, this situation drastically changed when the young man locked eyes with Torrano. In that brief moment of eye contact, it was like the young man was mutely pleading for his life. Torrano knew there was nothing more staff could do for him medically. He had to let go and move on to the next soldier.
He expressed with tear-filled eyes that leaving that young man behind was one of the harshest realities he’s had to accept this far in his 70 years of life. To this day, he confesses that every so often the young man’s face reappears in his dreams.
The onset of Torrano’s PTSD didn’t come full-circle until about 10 years after he returned home from war. However, he was in the prime of his youth and found a way to remain balanced, for he had big plans in store for his future.
In 1970, as soon as he was relieved from his wartime duties in Vietnam, the first thing Torrano did when he returned stateside was surprise his mother. On the day of his homecoming, he showed up at her doorstep but she wasn’t home. He remembers his little sister opening the door and jumping up and down like a jackrabbit in elation.
“She was so excited to see me, she couldn’t contain herself,” Torrano said. “It was really quite a heartwarming experience.”
He chose not to call his mother at work and tell her the news. Instead he waited until she returned home and startled her so much she nearly suffered a heart attack, Torrano joked.
Getting back in the groove of civilian life was pretty seamless for Torrano, who was just 21 years old at the time. As fate would have it, he would fall into another line of duty, except this time his uniform was of a different color.
His buddy from Vietnam, who lived in Norwalk, Conn., not only asked him to be the usher at his wedding but asked him to consider joining the city’s police department. The thought never occurred to Torrano that he might make a good police officer, given his military experience and credentials.
He took the police academy’s exam just to satisfy his curiosity. Torrano claims he scored the highest on the entry exam and by the following series of events it’s plausible he’s telling the truth.
Over the next 26 years, Torrano would climb the ranks of the department at an unprecedented pace. About every two to three years, or sooner, he would get promoted. Torrano held nearly every position in the department: police officer, patrol squad sergeant, detective sergeant, patrol lieutenant, headquarters division commander, commanding officer of patrol operations and commanding officer of administration and fiscal services.
His favorite position, regardless of rank on the pay scale, was detective sergeant. Torrano loved putting the pieces of the puzzle together and “getting in the meat” of an investigation.
He was promoted to captain over the span of 12 years. Most police officers are typically still patrolmen in their first 10 years. This rapid rate of ascension was never before seen at Norwalk Police Department, according to Torrano.
“I was a good test taker,” Torrano replied humbly, when asked what personal quality best justifies all of his success within the department. Somewhere during his police career, he found the time to get a degree from the University of Connecticut.
When Torrano retired from the department in 2001, the mayor of Norwalk reinstated him as the police commissioner which he would serve for the next eight years. He sat on the Norwalk Board of Police Commissioners from 2005 until 2013. In total, he gave the city 34 years of law enforcement and maintained safety in the streets.
After retiring the badge for good, Torrano tried his hand as a councilman on Norwalk’s Common Council. After his political escapades, Torrano said goodbye to Norwalk after serving in almost every civic capacity imaginable. He is a man who’s worn many hats.
In April 2019, Torrano rested his roots in Mount Pleasant, where he’s a member of Moultrie Post 136. So far, he loves the camaraderie of the Lowcountry.
“They take it to a whole new level down here,” Torrano exclaimed.
He noted he’s quite fond of local military landmarks like Patriots Point. He said their Vietnam Experience Exhibit is a pretty authentic depiction from its historical artifacts.
In 2006, Torrano returned to Vietnam on vacation to oversee the war sites from a bird’s-eye view. To his surprise, he didn’t have any flashbacks of commandeering a Huey through a downpour of lead showers; there were no misgivings. It was closure.
Right now it’s too soon to tell what he’s got planned for retirement, first he has to finish decluttering all of the moving boxes stowed around his home. Most boxes contain sensitive military memorabilia, photographs and plaques that tell stories, which Torrano will get around to as he unpacks.