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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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RUNNING HOME
In that same battle, a Bravo Company platoon leader had been killed. By mid-December three more members of Gonzales’ platoon had died, blown up in their foxhole by a stray shell fired by American artillery. “The lights went out,” Schroeder says, adding, “From then on, no feeling. It was overtly a survival game, covertly a protect-your-sanity game.”

In 1993, at a battalion reunion dinner, the mental storage unit in which medic Schroeder had locked away the death of Gonzales and the four other Bravo Company men started to open. His quest began. He came to Utah in summer 2001 and was met by Tom Gonzales’ brother Mike at the airport. He and Schroeder visited the Bingham Canyon Mine where Tom’s father had worked for 38 years. In 1956, the Gonzales family moved from Dinkeyville to Midvale. “We grew up in the Midvale ballpark,” Gene Gonzales says.

Like every other Bingham boy, Tom Gonzales gathered bits of shiny ore found everywhere and sold them to tourists. A hero to his younger brothers, he vigilantly protected Louie and Gene from bullies. Gonzales had a knack for cars and worked at a Phillips 66 station on State Street and later at Gordon Wilson Chevrolet. His prized possession was a 1956 green Ford, a gift from his older brothers. The Gonzales family still tends to that truck.

Tom Gonzales was the fifth of the boys in his family to join the military. Their oldest brother David (Doogie) fought in Korea. These are people familiar with military ways. But, meeting Schroeder, whose vain attempts could not keep their brother alive, was a complicated encounter for the Gonzales family. Because the trip was Schroeder’s way of processing his own past rather than helping the people he visited, he “wasn’t prepared for the notion the families needed help.” He recalls them as “cordial.”

One of the realities of the Vietnam War, Schroeder says, is that “when we came home, not only were we not respected or acknowledged, we were shunned and degraded. People had always closed themselves off to veterans.” What he didn’t realize was that surviving families had closed themselves off to their own pain, too. He was floored, he says, that they hadn’t moved forward.

That pain reveals itself in the eyes of Gene Gonzales as he recalls a 40 year old memory. He was in class when the school office summoned him and sent him home. The Gonzales family expected Tom home soon, their mother most anxiously of all. Gene falls silent and points to his throat. He can’t speak. He goes away and gets a drink of water. “I thought when I left school, Tom had come home,” he continues, recalling his premature optimism on that cold December day. He stops again. “Give me a minute,” he says. He disappears into his bedroom to compose himself. In the painful silence he leaves behind, the image of a teenager running home to fling his arms around his adored older brother is indelible.

Tom Gonzales is buried next to his parents. Gene visits the grave twice a year on Memorial Day and Christmas. “I try not to think about it,” he says about the loss of his brother. “I feel like my feelings for my brother are in my heart.”

ONE MORE PICKUP GAME
Vietnam Army veteran Tim O’Brien’s Pulitzer-finalist novel The Things They Carried artfully weaves the eyewitness Vietnam-veteran experience with the nuanced truths wrought of those experiences through a connected series of moving short stories. The stories of LeRoy Tafoya, Jimmy Martinez and Tom Gonzales are no less moving and equally prey to nuanced truths over the passage of time. Fact and fiction blur. As Tafoya’s half-brother Raul Citron says about trying to remember childhood events, “It’s kind of muffled in my head.”

Donna Cintron’s choking sentences, Maria Martinez’s misty tears and the inability of Gene Gonzales to speak evoke far more than any brittle words or half-remembered war stories might betray. They reveal truths that the telling of stories cannot.

The soldiers in O’Brien’s book carried weapons and keepsakes that reminded them of who they were. These relatives carry no more than photographs and memories. That’s all they have to remind them not only of their loss but also of who they are as survivors.

For George Martinez the loss of his brother Jimmy came full circle when his son, Johnny James Martinez, returned from Iraq. “Sometimes I see Johnny on the stairs,” he says, “and I tell my wife, ‘I just seen John walk downstairs’ ... and it was Jimmy.” He sees his brother, yet he doesn’t.

Midvale fenced off the baseball diamond at the bottom of the Avenues where LeRoy, Jimmy and Tom all played ball, and where each imagined himself to be Mantle or Mays or Snyder. When George Martinez first saw the locked chain-link fence, he felt like he’d been struck in the chest. The wooden bleachers were replaced by metal ones and the pickup games are no more.

But perhaps there could be one more game.

Imagine sitting in those bleachers 40 years ago. A noisy game is being played on the dusty field before you, boys scrambling in cutoffs and T-shirts, yet your eyes wander. To your left, to the east, your eyes settle on the comfortable houses of the Midvale Avenues. Above those homes rise the Wasatch Mountains. Now your gaze moves to the right, westward, as the setting sun falls over the Oquirrh Mountains. You catch a coppery glint and the Bingham Canyon Mine reveals itself.

Centered midvalley, placed perfectly between the high mountain rims on either side and as if at the bottom of a birds nest lies Midvale. Beyond the shelter of this safe cradle, farther beyond the mountains than you have ever been is the mysterious Vietnam. On the field below, the baseball game is nearing its end in the dimming light. The crowd awaits, hoping. The bases are loaded. Tommy’s on first, LeRoy’s on second and Jimmy’s on third. All each of them needs is one more hit to bring them safely home. Bingham Canyon native and City Weekly founder John Saltas contributed to this story.
Read John Saltas’ Sidebar: Dinkeyville
Read Private Eye: Kids With Guns

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