SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ  – At the 97th Annual UNICO National Convention Gala/Inaugural Ball held last month in Nashville, TN, Joe Belardo, Sr. was named the recipient of the organization’s Louis De Fillipo Freedom Armed Service Award. A resident of South Plainfield for over 60 years, Belardo was nominated by Robert Bengivenga, Sr., president of the Plainfields’ Chapter of UNICO. 

“The award is given to those who have been in combat and we nominated Joe Belardo for all he did while he was in the service,” said Bengivenga, noting that this was the second time someone nominated by the Plainfields' Chapter has won the De Fillipo Award. 

The Louis De Fillipo Freedom Armed Service Award is named in honor of the late World War II Army lieutenant who resided in South Plainfield. To be eligible, one must be a current or past member of the United States uniformed services ‘who has served in a foreign theater of war.’ The award, in part, is given to a single individual acting as a representative for all those who have served, within his or her particular branch of service. While individual acts of heroism that garnered a service member decoration(s) are welcome, they are not essential and the award is not restricted to Italian Americans although it is preferred. 

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‘The primary concern is that we recognize that our armed forces are made up of Americans of all ethnicities, races, color and creeds. We seek to honor them all,’ states the award description. 

Belardo was drafted into the Army in October 1966 and sent to Vietnam the following August where he was assigned to Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion, 44th Artillery – better known as ‘Dusters.’ Although he was in the Army, Belardo’s unit was deployed to Vietnam as the 3rd Marine Division’s mobile combat fighting team and body recovery unit under Marine control. 

The 1st Battalion 44th Artillery was one of the most decorated combat units in Vietnam and Belardo and his crew of Duster C131 hold the distinction of being the last to leave the finally abandoned Khe Sanh Combat Base. He was discharged in August 1968 with the rank of Sergeant E5. 

“The combat that Joe was in, was very serious at the time and he was responsible for a lot of men and other groups going through,” said Bengivenga. “To have that responsibility is very serious and he did an excellent job. He did a wonderful thing for his country and his men, too and showed exceptional bravery.” 

During his military years, Belardo earned several combat medals, including the Bronze Star w/Valor, Purple Hearts, Gallantry Cross with Palm, Marine Combat Action Ribbon, Republic of Vietnam Civil Actions Honor Medal, both the Army and Marine Presidential Unit Citations, Valorous Unit Awards, and Meritorious Unit Commendations. Additionally, he was the recipient of the 2008 National Jefferson Award - one of America’s most prestigious awards – presented by the New Jersey State National Governor’s Committee for Lifetime Volunteer Service.

“I have had several honors in my lifetime, but this, coming from the Italian-American community is special. Being honored by your heritage is humbling and it is rewarding to know your Italian brothers and sisters thought that much of my accomplishments to give me this award,” said Belardo, telling TAPinto South Plainfield that he is especially proud to receive a national award named in honor of De Fillipo, someone he respected and personally knew. 

“Anyone who knew him called him Uncle Lou and he was a great supporter of the community’s emergency services, fire, police, and churches,” said Belado, adding, “I truly wish that my grandparents and my parents were alive to see their grandson and son get this award.”

Belardo came from a ‘giant Italian family’ that settled in Plainfield back in 1899. For him, ‘heritage and tradition are very important and something that should be continued for generations to come.’ “Special meals, holiday traditions are so important to keep up; I did them for my children and they will do them for our grandchild, who will pass those traditions along to their own children when I am long gone,” said Belardo. 

UNICO was founded in on October 1922 by a group of Connecticut men who wanted to create an Italian American service organization to engage in charitable works, support higher education, and perform patriotic deeds. The name, which means ‘unique’ in Italian, was chosen to represent the one-of-a-kind nature and character of the organization, which was to unite all Italian Americans and motivate them to become more civic minded. Over time, UNICO became an acronym that stood for unity, neighborliness, integrity, charity, and opportunity. 

In 1947, UNICO National was formed and, over the past 70-plus years, thousands of people and individual charities have been the recipients of UNICO's charity. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised for national and international disasters and, each year, UNICO Foundation and UNICO National Chapters donate approximately $1 million to various charities. Scholarships continue to be the primary focus, as roughly one-third of all monies raised goes to deserving students from chapter locations throughout the chain.

“UNICO is a wonderful organization and you will not find a better Italian-American individual organization in the world,” added Belardo. “If you are an Italian-American, it is a must join organization.” 

While recipients of Louis De Fillipo Freedom Armed Service Award do not need to be members of the organization, Belardo was, prior to being honored, in the process of joining the organization. He was approached several years back by the late Renato Biribin, a good friend and a past national president of the organization, and, over the past few months has been working to complete his membership. 

”My wife Nancy and I want to thank Bob Bengivenga for nominating me for this award and also thank him and his wife, April, for treating us so kindly and attentively during our time in Nashville,” Belardo. 

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