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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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IS HE ALL THERE?
As Hotel Company radio operator, Luis Parker’s responsibilities included going through his friend’s personal possessions before they were shipped home. He boxed up Jimmy’s watch, dogtags, ring, shaving gear and wallet. “I don’t think after that I really wanted to get close to anyone any more,” he says. The body was shipped to a DaNang morgue and then on to the family, an escort from the unit accompanying it home.

After he spent nearly a year in Vietnam, Jimmy’s family expected him home for Christmas. Several days after Thanksgiving, his youngest sister, Beatrice, then 9, was bouncing on the couch when she saw several officers walk up to the front door. The family gathered in the living room. One officer read out the black words on the yellow telegram. “Dad fainted. He just dropped,” Beatrice says.

Norbert Martinez collected the body from a hangar at the airport two weeks later. He was determined to make sure his brother’s body was all there. He leaned into the coffin and felt his arms, his torso, his legs. “I had to know,” he says. Jimmy was intact. The concussion of the explosion had broken his neck. He was 20 years old.

A MOTHER’S LOVE
Five years after Jimmy Martinez died, his wartime friend Luis Parker visited the Martinez family in Midvale. Parker was on a driving tour from California to Florida and stopped in for coffee. The Martinez hospitality took hold and he attended a family wedding. He stayed for three days.

He also visited his friend’s grave. But it was the shrine in the family home that took his breath away. In a glass-enclosed cabinet resides Jimmy’s Marine Corps dress blues and his Purple Heart—as well as photographs of Gonzales and Tafoya. Parker lost it. Jimmy’s father Andres put his arms around Parker. “It was the first time I ever openly wept—and here I was in a strange person’s house,” Parker recalls.

The shrine to this fallen family hero—and friends—remains today. Mama Maria, at the age of 88 and with the help of a full-time nurse, still lives on Seventh Avenue, surrounded by dozens of family portraits plus tributes to the Kennedys and John Wayne. Photos of Jimmy as a child, teenager, high school graduate and, finally, as a Marine adorn the walls. Her children say she has never gotten over the loss of her son.

“Mother cried for 20 years,” Norbert Martinez says. His sister Beatrice says her mother always became emotional on Thanksgiving Day. Only in the last 10 years has she started to enjoy it. “She couldn’t talk about him a whole lot; she’d cry all the time,” Beatrice says. “It’s the hardest thing, losing a child.”

Ask Maria Martinez about her son, and she struggles to speak. “He wasn’t with me very long,” she says, dabbing at welling tears with a balled-up handkerchief. She’s a small, thin woman with a rigidly straight back. “They killed him. Muy triste.

Muy Triste. Very sad.

FNG
On Dec. 7, 1967, squad leader Tom Gonzales was directing his men on a sweep through a Vietnamese village in Binh Dinh province. Craters from field artillery and bombs dropped by jets scarred the land around the bamboo-framed and straw-roofed hooches. The village and surrounding area had been “prepped.”

Like Jimmy Martinez, Gonzales was “short”—the term used for a soldier nearing completion of his tour. He was counting the days. Like Tafoya, Gonzales was a member of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). Gonzales’ company had been airlifted to this position to support and extract a reconnaissance unit that was in deep trouble. A pitched battled ensued between Bravo Company and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars entrenched in nearby hedgerows and hidden tall trees. At 2 p.m. Gonzales and his men of 2nd platoon moved forward in a horizontal line through the hooches.

It was pouring rain. Next to Gonzales was Willis Padget, a FNG—a “Fucking New Guy” as soldiers new to Vietnam were known. Padget had been with Gonzales’ unit just over a week, and this was his first battle. They didn’t know each other well, but Padget already had respect for his young sergeant. “He knew what he was doing and took care of his men well,” he says. Padget stopped to light a cigarette. Gonzales continued onward. Padget couldn’t get his lighter to work. Gunfire forced the troops to duck for cover. Gonzales charged forward, squatted down, pulled the pin from a grenade and prepared to throw it at the enemy. A shot rang out, and he fell, landing on his grenade. “It killed him instantly,” Padget says. “He did a very brave thing there.”

Padget always tells people smoking saved his life. “It would have been me that got shot if I hadn’t stopped.” Gonzales’ brother Gene, the youngest of the family’s 14 children, puts it slightly differently. “Tom died because some guy smoked,” he says.

Gonzales had been shot by a sniper hiding in a spider hole, one of the many tunnel-fed, camoflagued firing positions that the NVA and Viet Cong fought from. “Someone on the line subdued that guy,” Padget says, a euphemistic way of saying that a particular North Vietnamese soldier’s family would never see their son alive again either.

Padget called for a medic. Al Schroeder, who had arrived in Vietnam in September 1967, ran to see if he could help Gonzales. His job was to keep a wounded soldier alive long enough to get him out of the field to a medical facility. “One of the things I struggled with over the years was not being well prepared,” Schroeder says.

He tried to revive Gonzales. Another medic scrambled up to Schroeder. “Let him go,” he told him. “He’s dead.” He was 20 years old.

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