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Veteran Spotlight: Army Sgt. Louis Vairo

By Wayne SoaresSpecial to iBerkshires
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Louis Vairo served his country in the Army from 1966 to 1968, achieving the rank of sergeant, specialist E5.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., he graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School and was drafted in 1966. 
"I remember my mother telling me that 'everyone is so proud of you. Your father served in WWII and you
had family that served in WWII and Korea. You should feel very proud to serve your country. We're praying for you — remember, God only takes the good,'" he said with a laugh.
He took the train from Grand Central Station to Washington, D.C., changed trains in Fort Jackson, S.C., then flew on a prop plane to Fort Still, Okla., for basic training. 
"We had an outbreak of the flu and meningitis so they were short on kitchen personnel and they asked for volunteers," he recalled. "I ended up working in the kitchen with other volunteers. We got really good at it. I did it my own way and did so well they gave me a promotion. I wouldn't take it unless my guys got a promotion, too — we were a team."
Vairo was then assigned to Fort Dix, NJ. 
"Got really sick with the flu but they nursed me back to health," he said. How were the holidays? "We were busy making holiday food ... Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's. I wanted to do the best meals for the men. Only time I got a little sad was in basic."
He shared this story: "In Germany, I shared a room with six guys. We had five Black guys and one white guy, who was me. I had never been exposed to that before," he said. "We all got along extremely well and it changed my view on race relations. We're all Americans first and should be equal. We all looked out for each other and became really close."
In later years it was Vairo, a professional and Olympic hockey coach, who made a phone call to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman recommending Willie O'Ree as an ambassador for the league, a position he's held since 1998. O'Ree was the first Black player in the history of the NHL and made his debut for the Boston Bruins in 1958.
Vairo would also share an extraordinary friendship with legendary Russian coach Anatoly Tarasov. 
"I brought him and several others to the U.S back in '79. We did an 18-city tour of introducing Russian hockey to American players," he said. "We ended up in Brooklyn and my grandmother cooked a huge meal, we had relatives there. Tarasov drank vodka but then had wine. People were singing 'Santa Lucia.' He and my grandmother started dancing, neighbors came into the back yard singing. Everyone had a wonderful time.
"Whenever I saw Tarasov, he would say, 'Lou, babushka?' (grandmother in Russian) I'd smile and give the thumbs up. He'd say, 'verri, verri goot spaghetti!' So much for the Cold War," he said
"I never won any medals, and I was no hero but I served and did my duty when called upon. It makes me so angry the way they treat veterans today, homeless veterans. The epitome of disrespect," he said.
Vairo's legendary career in hockey included numerous positions: NHL coach, USA Hockey executive, head coach of the Netherlands and Italian national teams, coach of the 1984 Winter Olympics men's team and advanced scout for the 1980 men's Olympic gold medal-winning hockey team. He is a recipient of the prestigious Lester Patrick Trophy, the Paul Loicq Award and was inducted into the USA Hockey Hall of Fame in 2014. 
"I could have gone to Vietnam and died. It was fate, it's the one thing in my life I've done that makes me the most proud from my heart, serving my nation," he said.
Sgt. Lou Vairo, thank you for your service to our great country.
Wayne Soares is the host of the popular new veterans cooking show, "The Mess Hall" that airs Saturdays on NBC's NECN at 9:30 a.m. He also entertains our troops around the globe and is the host and producer of the Vietnam veterans documentary "Silent Dignity – The Chapter That Never Ends." He can be reached at

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