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Alumni Newsmakers

Serving Country and Community

On his first visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, Eugene Toni scanned the “T’s” in the book of dead and missing soldiers whose names are etched on the wall, thinking he might come across a relative.

Eugene Toni accepts Camden County College’s first-ever Outstanding Alumnus Award. (inset below) Toni during his military service days.

Then he saw it: “Eugene Toni, Oct. 9, 1970.”

It was not a relative, but his own name alongside the date he stepped on a landmine in Vietnam, losing both of his legs.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is freaky,’” says Toni, MPA ’92, who served in Vietnam as a sergeant in charge of a sniper team, then on a reconnaissance team. He is one of at least 14 surviving veterans who are mistakenly listed on the wall.

Toni had come to the memorial that day hoping it would help him deal with some of the stress of returning home from war. “Then I find my name. Talk about survivor guilt,” he says.

Toni, who now works with disabled veteran business owners as a consultant for the Air Force Small Business Office, struggled with the psychological trauma many veterans endure after coming home. He persevered through graduate school at GW, earning his master’s in public administration, while experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“If you have a broken leg, you can find where it’s broken and put a cast on where it’s broken. With the mind, it’s a whole lot different,” Toni explains.

To cope, Toni found it valuable to focus on helping others. He has volunteered with several groups, including the American Red Cross, the Amputee Coalition of America, the Knights of Columbus, and as a basketball coach at his church and daughters’ school.

“Everybody likes volunteers and they can’t fire you,” jokes Toni, after explaining that service has become, for him, a necessary component of a balanced life.

One of Toni’s most active service roles is with Saint Coletta’s of Greater Washington, a school for disabled students that he became involved with because of a GW professor.

Stephen Chitwood, professor emeritus of public administration, one of Toni’s first professors at GW, had a special needs child. Talking with Chitwood about his son inspired Toni to help Saint Colletta’s, and he later became president of the school’s board of trustees.

Volunteerism comes naturally to Toni. After all, he had student status during the Vietnam War, which would have allowed him to defer from the draft. He chose to enlist after his co-worker got drafted.

That’s not the story he told his mother, who had encouraged him to enroll in college to avoid going to Vietnam. When he enlisted while attending Camden Community College, Toni told her that the government must have made a mistake. “My mom would’ve killed me,” he says.

Now Toni has three adult daughters of his own. He used to take his oldest daughter to Gelman Library, where they would work side-by-side in “study cubes”—he on graduate studies and she on grade school homework.

Toni also took his daughters to GW women’s basketball games, where they met the players and shot baskets during halftime. “Meeting and seeing the GW women play was an inspiration to all of them,” he says.

Many would say the same about Toni. His list of accomplishments and awards is long. Along with his military honors—a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star with Valor for combat heroism, a Vietnam Service Medal, and a Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal—Toni also has received awards for his volunteer and professional work. Former Vice President Al Gore awarded him with a National Performance Review Hammer Award. He also has received a Distinguished Civilian Service Award, an award created in his name at his daughters’ school, and most recently, the first-ever Camden County College’s Outstanding Alumnus Award.

As for his accidental recognition on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, he now says: “It’s kind of an honor to have your name there.”

—Caitlin Carroll