I’ve always had a soft spot for our military veterans. I’ve always admired and feared them. I can trace that to when I was very young and the guys up in Bingham Canyon returned from war with scary stories and scarier scars. Most of our parents or relatives had served in World War II, a war to which Bingham Canyon gave up its fair share of young men who died in either Europe or the Pacific, including my cousin George Kastanis.
As kids, we played “war” with fake hand grenades tossed at fake bunkers that stretched all over our little corner of Bingham Canyon called Leadmine. Jimmy Elkins, whose father, Lee, was one of those returning World War II veterans, was an avid “war” player. Jimmy always died with a dramatic flourish. Lee was in the Philippines when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Like many of the other vets, he’d settle up behind a beer in the old Moonlight Gardens tavern in Leadmine and tell stories, few of which were about war itself, but some were. Since kids weren’t banned from the taverns of Bingham Canyon, we heard those stories.
My uncle Tom, at 89, one of the declining number of remaining World War II veterans, saw Italy and France. I never learned what Uncle Al did in the Pacific. Uncle Lynn was stationed on a warship that was listed as missing for a month. Uncle Lloyd nearly died when a Japanese soldier came to his foxhole and fired. The gun misfired. The Japanese soldier died instead. Lynn and Lloyd never talked about war, but we all knew the war lived deep inside them.
By junior high school, many of us had older brothers fighting in Vietnam. Two of my older brothers spent a total of nearly four years in Southeast Asia—one in the Air Force, the other among the first Marines to land in Vietnam on March 8, 1965. My kindergarten classmate Kenny Coombs had an older brother, Brian, who was also a Vietnam Marine. If you met Brian, you’d never guess his Marine background. Yet anyone who knows anything about running the Colorado River can tell you about Brian Coombs, one of the most colorful, legendary river runners ever. Brian left Vietnam far behind, but it perhaps never left him.
Steven Miller’s Green Beret brother Joe came back with a Silver Star. My buddy Jeff Tibolla’s older brother Tim left for Vietnam in 1970. Jeff and I were high school graduates in 1972, so Tim’s leaving meant the war we were introduced to years earlier was catching up to us. He came home. Some of our brothers didn’t. I remember the day when Raymond Moon’s sister sobbed her way through the halls of Bingham High School, notified that Ray was dead. I knew brothers of LeRoy Tafoya, Jimmy Martinez and Tom Gonzales, the three kids who grew up in Dinkeyville in Bingham Canyon, then moved to the same Midvale neighborhood, and died as very young men in Vietnam in quick succession in late 1967. Reporter Stephen Dark wrote fabulously about them in a 2007 City Weekly cover story titled “The Things We Carry.”
By the time Jeff, Kenny, Steven and I graduated from Bingham High School in 1972, the war in Vietnam was winding down. The draft would end that year and only a very few of our friends—damn near all of them our Mexican buddies—were enlisting.
I’ve always admired how those Mexican guys stood up. It was plain then, and it’s just as plain today, that what they got out of serving their country was never going to be good enough for a certain type of bona fide American. But, they kept serving. One little guy who grew up with us in Leadmine, Julian Mercado (we used to call him Teenie), is still in the service, now at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. I can’t remember if it was Julian who slept in the unheated Mercado basement that you could only get to from an external door. His parents mostly spoke Spanish, and their large Puerto Rican family was often picked on from top to bottom. But talk about payback—Teenie is the respected one now.
Maybe that’s what it was with those guys—respect. Same for gay men and women, perhaps—respect, love of country, patriotism. So, wasn’t it ironic when the great Mitt Romney, seeking a photo op and some simpatico with all Vietnam vets, picked the wrong one to talk to? Mitt saw a guy wearing a Vietnam Veteran hat in a New Hampshire diner and approached him with his jaw, not his brain, as per usual. Mitt didn’t know the vet was an openly gay man—they wear Carmen Miranda hats, don’t they, not ballcaps, the ever-sheltered Mitt must have wondered. The man most certainly knew that when he was in Vietnam, Mitt was off avoiding the war.
The man asked Mitt if he supported gay marriage. Mitt fumbled. A gay veteran who had fought for his country for certain inalienable rights had asked Mitt a very simple question. Mitt just rutted out his usual pious line that marriage should be between a man and a woman, blah, blah, la, la, and one could easily see—again—that Mitt is as far removed from normal American men and women as watermelon is from peanut butter in the supermarket.
He wanted a photo op, damn it! And he got a simple question from a toughened soldier. When his “handlers” finally wrapped the hook around poor Mitt’s neck and led him away, it was clear as a bell that once again in life, Mitt has no idea of who to be, only what to be. And what he is these days is only a shadow of who he could have been. I doubt he even said thanks.