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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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THE MAN WHO LOVED CHILDREN
One of Cintron’s most treasured possessions is a letter she received from Tafoya’s sergeant, Howard Carney, written five days after her son’s death.

Carney wrote that his letter was not “standard procedure,” but that Tafoya had been so respected by his men, “we felt as though we should write.” He went on, “We all must die, but how a man dies is important. Frank was a man’s man and he gave his life for freedom. He did not die without purpose or accomplishment as a lot of people do.”

Indeed Tafoya had plans for his life after the war. Much like his friend Jimmy Martinez, Tafoya loved children and wanted to help them any way he could. He planned to go to college and, his mother says, “get an education that would help him work with the community and the children. His hope was to have better things for the children in Midvale.”

Tafoya worked at the Midvale Community Action Center to gather local children together and keep them off the streets. Raul Cintron recalls that his older half-brother LeRoy was especially protective of his siblings. “He’d put his point across so bullies wouldn’t bother us anymore,” he says.

But Tafoya couldn’t solve the strife at home. The tensions were so strong between him and his stepfather that he enlisted after graduating from Bingham High School in 1966. “He said things would probably be better at home if he wasn’t there,” Donna Cintron says. “I begged him and begged him not to go … but he had already made up his mind.”

“When he left us, it broke my heart,” Raul Cintron says.

From Fort Lewis, Washington, where Tafoya did his basic training, and then in Vietnam, he wrote his mother and family constantly. Sadly, only two letters remain. “I had a whole box of letters and my husband burned them all,” Donna Cintron says, unable to forgive the man she later divorced.

She does have her son’s photographs, though. “He wanted to take a lot of pictures so he had a lot of memories when he got home,” she says. “I started this album for him, but he never saw these pictures.”

Children are in many of Tafoya’s Vietnam photos. One smiling little boy wears Tafoya’s helmet and carries his M16. Orphaned by the war, the child “tagged along with LeRoy,” his mother says, polishing his shoes, hanging out with him. Tafoya became attached to the boy. When Tafoya was killed, the boy came looking for him. He asked a soldier where he was. The man told him he had been killed. But the boy’s English was poor. “Who, his brother?” he kept repeating, unable to comprehend. Finally he understood his GI friend LeRoy was dead. The boy broke down and cried.

When the body reached Salt Lake City, Cintron insisted on viewing her son. The military wanted to keep the casket closed. “I told them I’m not going to allow you to bury him unless you open it,” she says. She wanted to know it was her son. “I’m not going to believe it unless I see it,” she said.

It took the military some time to prepare the body. She and several other family members viewed it, then the casket was closed for the service and funeral at Lake Hills Memorial in Sandy. The Martinez and the Gonzales’ families were present.

Raul Cintron didn’t believe his father when he told him his brother was dead. “It hit Raul so bad, so bad,” his mother says. “At the funeral, he threw himself on top of the casket and I felt helpless to comfort him.”

While Tafoya did what his country asked of him, Raul Cintron wonders if he died for a just cause. “The guys who died there died for nothing,” he says. “But it doesn’t take away anything from those guys who went there.”

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