"The worst part about going to Vietnam was coming home," Gerry Byrne says. He is sitting in his unfinished tenth-floor office across the street from the United Nations in New York City, where he's nearing his one-year anniversary as partner, President and Chief Executive Officer of "Stagebill," the magazine of the performing arts.
"For me, growing up in the Bronx, it was a given that you contributed to society," he reflects. "It was part of the deal, at least I thought it was.
I knew I wanted to serve with the best possible outfit: the Marines. They have a rich historical heritage going back to 1775. Every aspect of the Marines is built on the idea of a band of brothers, and teamwork."
Gerry started his Marine education attending platoon leaders’ class at Fordham College. He graduated in 1966 with a degree in economics and a commission as a lieutenant. Sent to Vietnam shortly after the Tet Offensive in 1968, his year-long tour of duty was split between Phu Bai, where he was assigned to the 1st Marine Air Wing, and Marble Mountain, near Danang, where he was Officer-in-Charge of the airfield.
One evening shortly after he arrived at Phu Bai, he found himself in a bunker with a young Marine, seeking refuge from a barrage of VC shelling.
"‘Lieutenant,’ the Marine said, holding a Zippo lighter,’ did you ever see this before?’"
"Then he shows me the inscription: 'For those who have fought for it, freedom has a taste that the protected will never know.' That inscription has stayed with me ever since. I've developed an enormous respect for those who put on the uniform, for those who are willing to fight and defend."
Change of Direction
When Gerry came home in 1969, few of those he encountered, it seemed, shared this sentiment. An economics major in college who had intended to pursue a career on Wall Street, he found a home instead at the New York Daily News, where a lot of the key people had been Navy pilots or Marine Corps officers. "It was like going back to the cocoon," he says. "At most of the other places I interviewed, having been a Marine Corps captain in Vietnam meant nothing. To some people, it was a graduate degree in stupidity."
Even at the Daily News, he was not inured against this attitude. One day, he recalls, "we were entertaining executives from major retailers at a luncheon. One guy asked me what I did before I came to the paper. I told him I’d been a captain in the Marine Corps. 'Did you serve in Vietnam?' he asked me. 'Yeah, I got back three, four months ago.' After a moment of silence, everybody started talking to each other. Nobody spoke to me. Nobody wanted to talk about Vietnam, to explore what it did to those who served."
Gerry put his Veterans status in his pocket.
A Belated "Welcome Home"
It didn’t remain out of sight for long. A few years later, his wife, Liz, started a MIA-POW bracelet campaign in the city. "She was sensitive to the issue and got very involved," he says with a note of pride. "She had a big event planned, they were going to plant a tree in Madison Square Park for an MIA, Michael O·Connor. But her younger brother had been killed in an auto accident, and I had to step up."
This event, and the repatriation of the POWs in 1973, got him thinking. About service and sacrifice. About honor and integrity. What really got him involved, though, was the "Welcome Home" parade in New York City on May 7, 1985, the tenth anniversary of the end of the Vietnam Era. The parade, Gerry says, triggered my future involvement with Veterans. As we were walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, we really didn't know what kind of a reception to expect. When we reached the other side and saw all the people, crowds of people, cheering and throwing confetti, we knew they cared.
It was a wonderful, if belated, welcome home.
It was then that Gerry decided to become an activist of sorts. With his career on an upward arc - he was working for Crain Communications, for which he was the start-up publisher of both Electronic Media and Crain's New York Business he became involved with the Vietnam Veterans Ensemble Theater Company in New York. His career blossomed: after 14 years at Crain's and one year as senior vice president of planning and international development at Norman Lear's ACT III Publishing, he joined the entertainment weekly Variety as executive publisher, quickly rising to group vice president and publisher.
Gerry today, with wife Liz Daly Byrne at the 2000 Tonys, New York.Gerry today, with wife Liz Daly Byrne at the 2000 Tonys, New York. Photo Copyright 2000, Wendy Moger-Bross
His community involvement also began to proliferate. He accepted offers to serve on the boards of the American Museum of the Moving Image, the African Medical and Research Foundation, the Environmental Media Association, the Westhampton Performing Arts Center, American Friends of the National Film and Television School, the Catholic Youth Organization.
He also serves on the board of Operation Smile International, which sponsors reconstructive facial surgeries for children around the world including, at Gerry's behest, Vietnam.
And last year, he joined the Board of Advisors of VeteransAdvantage, seeing how his beliefs and the mission and goals of VeteransAdvantage dovetailed.
Four years ago, Gerry and his friend and fellow Marine, the actor Harvey Keitel, started the Marine Corps Birthday Ball. Their immediate goal was to "celebrate the respect we have for the Marine Corps and all it had given us, spirit, drive, ethics, integrity, a belief in ourselves as much as a belief in the Corps and what it's all about: Because when you combine integrity and ethics with hard work and teamwork, you get the job done." And part of their job at the ball is to raise money for the Toys for Tots campaign and the Intrepid Museum Foundation.
Gerry Byrne is proud of his service, and proud to have been a Marine. "It’s this special spirit, this esprit de corps, that I've tried to make prevail in everything I’ve done in my professional life, and my personal life as well."
Image Credit: http://www.zimbio.com/Gerry+Byrne/pictures/pro/2013