Of all the death and destruction the Marines trudged through daily for months during the Vietnam War, one comparatively small act of violence – a stolen Buddha statue from an impoverished village in Vietnam – has remained a defining moment for four veterans.
Fifty years later, they are going back to southeast Asia to return it.
Before they leave later this month, they're trying to find a lost comrade who was there with them on April 7, 1968 when the statue was stolen from a shrine. They want to return it together.
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The veterans – Julio "Marty" Martinez, Mike Duerr, Clem Edwards and Bill McMyler – will fly out of Los Angeles on May 28. They're trying to find Al Lopez, who was living in Fresno before heading to the war.
"We saw a lot of things," Martinez said of the Vietnam War. "We hurt a lot of people, and those same people hurt a lot of our people. All we are doing is going back and we want to make this one thing right."
The broken shrine
The men had just entered a rural, deserted village while on patrol one hot afternoon when they saw the white stone statue – about the size of a bottle of tequila, Martinez noted – sitting on a short wooden pole in a glass case that reminded some of a bird house.
Duerr was behind Tony from Tennessee, the Marine who stole it. He saw Tony shatter the glass with the handle of his pistol, snatch the statue, then drop it into a pocket on the side of his pants. Not more than 10 minutes later, Duerr recalled, Tony stepped on a land mine that blew off his left leg below the knee.
The force of the blast knocked Duerr over and sent shrapnel slicing into his face. During a helicopter ride to receive medical care, the statue was given to Duerr, who later mailed it home. Tony never saw it again.
"He always considered it an omen or bad luck," Duerr said.
Tony drowned in 2009 during a canoe trip with friends in Tennessee.
The trip back to Vietnam, in part, is for Tony. They hope it helps him rest in peace.
Up until recent years, Duerr was still pulling shrapnel out of his body from the blast that severed Tony's leg. The last visible pieces came out of his throat one morning while shaving.
The stolen statue – taken from Bo Ban in Quang Tri Province, a region in north central Vietnam – has been sitting on a table in Duerr's home for years.
"None of us think it would be right to just leave it someplace or donate it to the local Buddhist temple," Edwards said, "because we know where it came from."
The missing Marine
Lopez was there that day, too.
He's been lost to the men since the war. They have few clues about where he may be, or if he's even alive.
What they recall: Lopez was of Mexican heritage from Fresno. He had a child born in the U.S. in early 1968 while deployed. He was roughly 5-foot-8, 165 pounds, with brown eyes, dark brown hair and medium-colored brown skin.
"He was a big, stocky guy," Duerr said. "He shared his Mexican food with me. It was pretty spicy, too. He would get packages from home."
Martinez has placed "hundreds and hundreds" of calls to veterans groups and every Lopez he can find in the Fresno area with a first name starting with the letter "A." He isn't sure what his full first name is, or if it's just Al.
Martinez and Lopez arrived in Vietnam together in January 1968. A forever bond was forged fighting side-by-side. All these years later, Martinez still thinks of him.
Anyone with information about Lopez is asked to email Martinez at email@example.com.
"I would just like to see Al," he said, "and hope he is well. And if he's struggling, we've all struggled, and now we can take comfort in our own remembrance of the people and what they did."
The horrors of war
Lopez was seriously injured in October 1968 on Mutter's Ridge, located in the northernmost province of South Vietnam at the time.
Mortar rounds tied in trees by enemy soldiers as a booby trap on Hill 484 exploded as the Marines advanced. Shrapnel gashed open Lopez's midsection, about 6 or 7 inches from his belly button. The veterans believe he was sent home from a hospital soon after.
The bloodshed in Vietnam was immense. For several days Duerr once buried enemy soldiers in the sand after one battle.
"Sometimes you'd see their wallet and go through the wallet and see a picture of their wife or girlfriend," Duerr said. "I realized these guys are in the same boat. We are just peons in a battle of politicians, I guess."
Edwards said they did what they had to do in combat. Still, he says, one particular fight makes him feel some regret. He was a machine gunner then, sent in to mop up after hundreds were killed.
"A few hundred North Vietnamese were still fighting and they were trying to escape to the north and we cut them off and chopped them up," Duerr said. "It was almost like they were suicidal and just charged the machine gun."
Learning of the survival of fellow Marines has eased some of the pain of that time.
A few years ago, the veterans reconnected with one Marine who nearly died after being hit by rocket fire. The blast cut open his chest and flung the man's organs outside his body. Edwards scooped them up and put them back inside him.
"He grabs my arms and says, 'Am I going to be able to have kids?" Edwards recalls. "I said, 'Of course, no problem. You're going to be fine.' … I asked him 45 years later if he had any kids. He said he had two daughters, and I started sobbing. I've been holding that in for all that time, wondering."
Despite all the horror, Edwards said there wasn't anything that he or his fellow Marines did to be ashamed of. But one thing threatens that, he added: the stolen Buddha statue.
In March, Martinez took a photo of the statue to a Buddhist temple in Riverside, looking for information.
"The monk told me it's a Buddha for hungry spirits because of the poverty in the area," Martinez said. "It's a female Buddha."
Martinez learned a monk at the temple has a sister who lives near Bo Ban where the statue was taken. She offered to guide them back to the village after they arrive in the country on May 31.
Martinez first returned to Vietnam in 2008. He's organizing the trip back with his friends, who haven't been to the country since the war.
"I personally want to show these guys that this country (Vietnam) is not responsible for all the stuff that they carry. … The ironic part is when you go back to Vietnam and you visit those people, they are so nice to you," Martinez said. "It's outrageous."
The veterans will be together for 12 days. Martinez will stay another couple weeks to see more of the country and visit a Catholic church he's been donating to for a number of years.
He said that like many soldiers, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Martinez wants fellow veterans who suffered to know "it's going to be OK."
"That's what I wanted to show these guys … and maybe we even did stuff that wasn't right," he said, "but it's OK."
The men will keep looking for Lopez. They found others through a veterans website, onethreemarines.com.
"I always think of the guys who didn't make it," Duerr said. "I still picture them at 20 years old, and here we are at 70 now. We had a good life, a great life, and they didn't have that."
Of returning the stolen statue, Martinez said, "It's going to give us a chance to release some of the demons."