Our Vietnam Voices: Born in Canada, but he fought for the U.S.

Sep 15, 2017

While thousands of men left the U.S. for Canada to avoid military service during the Vietnam War, many Canadian men came to America to do just the opposite. As part of WNED|WBFO's "Our Vietnam Voices" series, we bring you the story of one such Canadian who took up arms for the United States.

Somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 U.S. citizens dodged the draft during the Vietnam conflict by crossing the border. What few may realize is that about 30,000 Canadian men came to this side of the border, looking to join and fight.

Dominic Bilotta was born in Niagara Falls, Ontario but "always wanted to be a Marine." He eventually got his wish and served with the U.S. in the Vietnam War.
Credit Lynne Bader, WNED-TV

Dominic Bilotta was one of them. Born in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Bilotta told WNED-TV he always wanted to be a U.S. Marine. So in his late teens, he tried to enlist. 

He was unsuccessful on his first try but he did secure a job in Niagara Falls, New York. He tried again to enlist in the military and succeeded.

"I asked how long I had (to be drafted) because now I'm eligible for the draft by working over here. She said probably three or four months. I said 'really, that's all?' She said 'Yeah.'"

He signed up immediately. He recalled having three different drill instructors, all of whom were amazed that a "Canuck" would want to join the Marine Corps. 

He was stationed in Con Thien, located a short distance south of Vietnam's Demilitarized Zone. Bilotta said he was a Section Leader in a platoon that was armed with mortars, rockets and machine guns. While on a patrol within the DMZ one day, he recalled, he and his men were ambushed.

He struggled with emotions while discussing that attack. He reported losing a finger, while others around them lost their lives.

"One, two, three, four of them there. You try, and try, and try but you wonder why," Bilotta said. "It really don't come to you because that was something that had to be done and something they had to respect me to do."

A photo of Dominic Bilotta while he served in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Credit the collection of Dominic Bilotta

Bilotta was awarded two Purple Hearts. Yet upon returning to North America, he found the Canadian government would not recognize his service in Vietnam, nor was he welcomed to participate in Remembrance Day events. He was also unable to collect the same benefits that U.S.-born veterans were able to get. 

But he got a job in Niagara Falls, New York upon his return. And his wife, Marilyn, was also there for him. She said that around the time her husband turned 51 years old, the haunting memories and trauma of his war experience came back.

"When things happened, they all happened at once," she said. "It was really stressful. It really was. His counselor told me when this happens it's going to happen all at once. It's going to be quick. He was right. It did."

But it was Marilyn who also encouraged her husband to display and take pride in his service for his adopted homeland. His medals, awards and many other mementos from the war were kept in boxes until she suggested he take them out and hang them up.

"I got them out and put them on the wall," she said. "I said 'you were there, you did this, they're going up on the wall. You should be proud of what happened, be proud of what you did.'"

She also credits the U.S. Marines as being, in her opinion, the best of the military branches. She said it was their training that ensured her husband would come back alive.

"He was a good Marine," she said. 

You can learn more about this epic period in American history in the landmark documentary premiere of "The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick."  The series begins Sunday, September 17 at 8 p.m. on WNED-TV

For more local stories on the Vietnam War, visit WNED.org to watch the Our Vietnam Voices series. There, you can share your own story and join the conversation using the hashtag #VietnamStoriesPBS.