It has been more than 45 years, but I remember vividly my family driving in two cars to the Oakland International Airport to greet my older brother returning home from the Vietnam War. My younger brother and I missed school and rode in the back of my father’s Datsun pickup.
When we arrived at the airport, we were informed by officials that my brother would arrive at Travis Air Force Base, not at a public airport. He was then bused to the Oakland Army Depot, where Roberto came back from war welcomed only by two high school teenagers, two sisters, an older brother and a parent who promised to make a pilgrimage to a holy church in Mexico City if his son returned home safely.
I am certain this type of nondescript family reunion with some variation was played out half a million times across the country over the approximate 10 years of the Vietnam War. Saturday marks the 41st anniversary of the end of that controversial war.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial established in 1982 is testimony to the more than 58,000 soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice and never came home. The black granite wall memorializes the names of 67 soldiers who hailed from Fresno and more than 550 soldiers who lived in communities between Bakersfield and Stockton.
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Almost three-fourths of these soldiers never celebrated their 23rd birthdays. Each is remembered privately by loved ones and honored publicly by visitors to the wall. No one leaves that monument without deep respect and debt to all who served our country. The war was a divisive and tumultuous conflict for our nation, but for many soldiers, it was not theirs to question.
My brother was attending Fresno City College in 1968, playing on the baseball team. His goal of getting drafted by a major league team ended when, instead, he received a draft letter from Uncle Sam.
In efforts to correct a gross historical omission to recognize these brave young men and women, in 1974, March 29 was declared Vietnam Veterans Day. That date in 1973 marked the day the U.S. armed forces completed withdrawal of all combat troops in Vietnam.
Last April 7, the Fresno/Clovis area inaugurated an annual tribute to the thousands of Vietnam veterans living in the area who sacrificed for our liberties but never received a proper welcome home from the war. In humble appreciation, each Vietnam veteran in attendance was awarded the Vietnam Veteran Lapel Pin, which states, “A Grateful Nation Thanks and Honors You.”
During the emotional observance, it was very apparent there exists an eternal and unconditional brotherhood that links the veterans to each other. It reached out when battle-fatigued soldiers returned home and experienced the hardships of adjusting to a world they left behind.
Many veterans continue to experience physical, mental and psychological casualties of war that only their war brothers can understand.
Letters my younger brother and I wrote to Roberto while he served in Vietnam were always answered with the guidance of an older brother. Instead of describing his dire circumstances, he would always ask about our schooling, the progress of our school baseball team, and he encouraged us to pay more attention to our unruly baby brother.
Roberto continued his baseball career at Fresno State when he was discharged. We never discuss his experiences in Vietnam, although his humor is suspect. He famously makes humorous comments like telling his nephew’s new girlfriend that he liked the previous one better.
It is family folklore to attribute Roberto’s quirky humor to chemicals he inhaled in Vietnam, either as defoliants (Agent Orange) or hallucinogens.
Like many veterans, my brother keeps the promise to serve his war brethren. Their valor continues beyond the battlefield by watching out for each other. The lasting brotherhood also keeps alive the memory of 3 million men and women who protected our country during one of the most turbulent times in our nation’s history.
The wide unpopularity of the Vietnam conflict added a scarring dimension to the hell of that war. Yet, the veterans sustain each other through their brotherhood in ways that no ticker tape parades, marching bands or grand marshals ever could.
Paul A. Garcia is a retired educator.