Memories of the Vietnam War came flooding back 50 years later to Fred Lopez.
The Madera Ranchos man was on vacation in Oregon when a family friend saw a story on fresnobee.com about Marines looking for a missing veteran named Al Lopez. The friend saw the published black-and-white photo of Lopez and said, "Isn't that Fred?"
The veterans who have been searching for him aren't sure how they came up with Al. They just called him Lopez during the war.
The search was led by veteran Julio "Marty" Martinez. He'd been looking for Lopez for years before he turned to The Bee for help. He wanted to find him before flying to Vietnam later this month with three other veterans.
The men are going to return a stolen Buddha statue. It was taken by a fellow Marine who has since died. Lopez was there that day, but never knew something was stolen until this week.
The start of his note:
" … and it's not Al, it's Fred.
"I survived and have a great life.
"Martinez, I’ve never forgotten you. Do you remember Sgt Nitscke, Nakamura, Smitty, Mo-tee, Jenkins, and Lt Louie? Now you know it’s me."
Lopez shared his contact information and said he was looking forward to hearing from the men. Martinez called the following morning, Wednesday, and they spoke at greater length that night.
They mostly talked about each other and their fellow veterans. It was "surreal."
"We were a very, very tight unit," Lopez said. "We were always in the bush or the jungle. I never had a hot meal in Vietnam."
After the war, Lopez never tried to find them. Of his time in Vietnam, he said, "I left everything there."
The Vietnam War was "a challenging time." So was returning home. Someone once spit on him after learning he fought in Vietnam.
Will he keep in touch with his fellow veterans, now that they've found him?
"That's a good question," Lopez said. "I left a lot there (in Vietnam). I'm thinking it's probably going to stay there. I haven't had any repercussions (from the war). Since I've talked to them I've a had a lot of – thoughts."
He's talked very little about the war until this week, when he reconnected with Martinez and sat down with The Bee. Lopez paused several times during the interview to compose himself. Half a century later, remembering 1968 is still hard.
He recalls the combat he lived through as some of the bloodiest of the Vietnam War. The Marines fought in the northernmost province of South Vietnam, closest to the enemy's stronghold.
Lopez's company had 48 Marines in early 1968 when he arrived in Vietnam. By the time he was seriously injured in October, half of those men had been killed.
One Marine who died before the end of that year, Andrew Ruiz, graduated with Lopez at Clovis High School.
Lopez was wounded three times during his 10 months in the country. His body is covered in scars. The longest runs across his stomach from a blast that blew the intestines out of his body. It was hours before a helicopter came to pick him up after that firefight.
Lopez learned Wednesday that some Marines who survived the war have since died.
Tears filled Lopez's eyes when he recalled medics trying to take off his wedding ring as he lay in a military hospital before one surgery. He wouldn't let them.
After the war
He credits the strength of his wife, Diana, for helping him reintegrate into society.
Lopez works as an insurance broker and has two sons and three grandchildren. His eldest son, Fred Lopez Jr., was born shortly after he arrived in Vietnam at age 19.
Lopez doesn't think he experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, but his wife disagrees. He says he had some issues after the war, but his wife "pointed me in the right direction."
"We had a hard time afterward," she said of his return home from Vietnam. "We don't need to do that again."
Lopez won't be returning to Vietnam with his comrades later this month, but he may be there to wish them well before they fly out of Los Angeles International Airport on May 28. Lopez is glad to hear they are making a return trip.
As for Martinez, it was just good to know Lopez is OK.
Of their phone call, Martinez said, "I felt good because I heard the joy in his voice."