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December 05, 2007 News » Cover Story

The Things We Carry 

In late 1967, three Midvale buddies died in Vietnam. Forty years later, their families still struggle with the loss

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A WALK ALONG THE AVENUES
All three youths, the sons of miners, had roots in Bingham Canyon, home of the gigantic open-pit Kennecott copper mine gouged deep into the Oquirrh Mountains. As mining operations expanded, more and more of the once-lush mountains around the mine were consumed, taking whole communities with them. High in the mountains, in Copperfield, was the hamlet of Dinkeyville, where Donna Cintron was born and where the Gonzales and Martinez families had homes. The mine ate Dinkeyville. Families were uprooted. All three families eventually moved to Midvale.

Today, a concrete wall, erected when Interstate-15 scythed through the community, separates the Avenues district from the rest of Midvale. The well-kept gardens bursting with rose bushes and American flags that front the small, old-fashioned houses hark back to earlier times. Midvale’s nine avenues run perpendicular to what is now called Historic Main Street, like teeth on a comb. Midvale was Main Street, U.S.A.

As Jimmy Martinez’s only sister, Beatrice Martinez Carlson, remembers, she would go to the soda fountain in Vincent Drug following school. After ordering a 25-cent ice-cream sundae and asking the soda jerk to pile on the whipped cream, she would ask for some additional hard candy and then place it all on her father’s account. She’d walk along Main Street past T-Rays, Christine’s and the Pastime Taverns, past the union hall, Burke’s Theater, the photography studio and under the barber pole. Shoppers came and went from J.C. Penney’s, Burns Grocery, Duke’s Clothing and Brown’s Shoes. At the end of the Avenues was the dusty baseball park where Midvale kids and rivals from West Jordan gathered for pickup games of baseball and football. She could lick her sundae and munch on Chick-O-Stix while watching her private and peaceful world go by from the wooden bleachers.

Those serene times would slowly—then suddenly—come to an end. Slowly, because shopping malls drew customers elsewhere, and new subdivisions sprouted to the south and west. Suddenly–especially for these three families–because the war in Vietnam would shatter all prospects for an idyllic future forever. The day after the Cintrons’ learned the fate of their oldest son, a knock fell on the door of the Martinez family house on Seventh Avenue. Jimmy Martinez was dead. Days later, death called again, this time at a Sixth Avenue door and bearing the bad news about Tom Gonzales.

The three boys knew each other well. According to a Deseret News story from Nov. 29, 1967, headlined “Buddies Die in Vietnam,” Martinez and Tafoya “double-dated. They worked on their cars together. They hunted and fished together. They buddied around with the same group of youngsters.”

When news filtered through the close-knit community that three of their own had died in Vietnam, Midvale was plunged into mourning. In the local Catholic parish, where the Martinez and Gonzales funerals were held, mourners filled the church and spilled into the nearby neighborhood. An LDS wardhouse in West Jordan also overflowed with mourners paying respects to LeRoy Tafoya. Three times “Taps” rang out across local, crowded graveyards. Three times military honor guards fired salutes into the air.

It seemed like all we were doing was going to funerals,” Tafoya’s mother says. “One funeral after another.”

A KNOCK AT THE DOOR
Listen to Eloy Romero, and you enter his Vietnam. You sense his fear of not knowing who the enemy really is. You hear the sounds of war, even laughter sometimes, but especially the rapid bursts from Romero’s M60 machine gun. You hear one of the most distinctive sounds from the Vietnam War, the whoop-whoop-whoop of Huey helicopters.

LeRoy Tafoya boarded one such Huey on Nov. 22, 1967. A rifleman in Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, of the 7th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), he and the rest of third platoon were being flown out to support fellow infantry who had been ambushed by a Viet Cong battalion. The second platoon of Delta Company had earlier set out on a routine search-and-destroy mission 20 kilometers north of the fishing town of Phan Thiet, in Binh Thuan province, South Vietnam, when enemy fire pinned them down on the edge of a rice paddy.

That morning, Tafoya wrote to his mother, Donna Cintron, asking her to describe the West Jordan house his family had recently moved to, “so I can picture it in my mind.” In his letter, he mentioned the grueling, nine-month-long strike of 1967 at the Kennecott copper mine which had left so many of their family and friends struggling to get by without wages. He asked her to send “Nelli’s cheli [sic] beans” and a Christmas care package so “I can celebrate. Ha.” About what he called this “dirty war,” he had nothing “new to say.”

As a postscript, he told his mother to give his girlfriend some of the pictures he had taken in Vietnam. He always sent his film for her to develop and keep for his return. He would never see the photos. A few hours after he folded the letter and sealed the envelope, an ensuing act of heroism cost him his life.

How Tafoya died is described in the citation of his posthumous Silver Star award: Tafoya “exposed himself to the enemy fire as he moved forward to provide security for his platoon’s right flank.” He was wounded by an exploding mortar shell. “Despite his wound, [he] remained exposed to enemy fire as he provided covering fire for a helicopter which was trying to land. While providing this suppressive fire [he] was mortally wounded.” Tafoya was 19 years old.

Several days later, two uniformed men knocked on Donna Cintron’s door. They entered, stood at the door and told her that her eldest son had been killed.

“I don’t even believe this,” she said. Her then-13-year-old son Jose Luis (Joe) stood by her side, glaring at the officers, he recalls, because “they had made my mom sad.”

She pleaded that, “I just got a letter from him. I already wrote him three letters.” Every day she wrote to her son. A small pile of her letters was later returned. On Nov. 27, the letter Tafoya wrote the day he was killed arrived at the Cintron home.

Donna Cintron remembers little else. “It’s just hard to explain,” she says, her voice breaking. “It took me more than five years before I could even talk about it. It’s still very hard after 40 years. It seems like yesterday.”

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