Friends of fallen Vietnam Marine celebrate his legacy

Nearly a half century after his death, family and friends of Vietnam War casualty Charles David Yllan gathered Saturday at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Fresno to honor Yllan and the expanded family his legacy created.

Yllan, a lance corporal in the Marine Corps, was born in Mendota on May 15, 1949, and was killed by sniper fire Nov. 21, 1969, in the province of Quang Nam. He was 20 and was one of four men from Mendota to die in Vietnam.

It seemed highly fitting that the group chose Saturday to gather around Yllan’s grave, two days before the national holiday that commemorates all those who have given their lives in service of their country. But on Saturday, their focus was Yllan.

“This has been a 47-year journey, navigated by our love for Moosie,” said high school friend Leticia Maldonado Stamos, using his childhood nickname.

“I don’t think this was an accident. I think God was helping Moosie complete his legacy and do something good for others. This was Moosie’s way of thanking us for never forgetting him.”

More than 20 people came to the casual service – almost half of them veterans – to visit his grave and the veteran’s wall, which now bears his name. At the grave, Stamos presented the bit of dirt she refused to throw into it when he was interred. Everyone took a pinch of dirt and scattered it on top of his grave. It was a moment of closure and healing for those still wrestling with the pain of war and death.

For Texas veteran Robert Riojas, who held Yllan as he died from a gunshot wound to the neck, closure involved locating Yllan’s grave three years ago and his surviving friends and family in Fresno.

“(The day Yllan died) stayed in my mind forever, and I always wanted to come and talk to his family,” Riojas said. “But because I was struggling with my own demons, and trying to get my life together, I couldn’t come out.”

Riojas initially found Stamos through Facebook, but an act of God brought them together. She happened to be attending a conference in his hometown, he said.

“We cried. We laughed. We cried and we laughed,” he said. “She still has the letters that I sent her from Vietnam, back from 1969. Charles has brought us so close together – I don’t think we’re ever going to be apart. I think we’ll stay in communication until the day we die.” During the war, Yllan had taken pity on Riojas and asked Stamos to be his pen pal because only his mother wrote to him.

According to Stamos, that type of thoughtfulness was typical for Yllan. Though he was not big in stature, he had a big personality, Stamos said. She remembers him as a kindhearted, sensitive, sweet kid who believed in what he was doing for his country. She said his friends depended on him, and everybody knew not to mess with him.

Anthony Yllan, who was about 10 when his brother died, agreed. One of seven siblings, he said his brother was tough: While he never hit or yelled at him, he was not afraid to defend him from others who did.

When Yllan joined the Marines and was assigned to the Kilo Company, members of his squad, like Robert Riojas, experienced the effects of both his thoughtfulness and his toughness. Not only did Yllan find Riojas a pen pal, but also, whenever somebody wanted to pick a fight with Riojas, Yllan stood up for him, he said.

The last time Yllan stood up for his friend was the day enemies across the river opened fire on the Kilo Company’s camp.

“He was standing in front of me, so he actually took a bullet for me,” Riojas said. “If he hadn’t been in front of me, the bullet would have hit me in the chest. I heard was a big thud when it happened, and I caught him. And then all hell broke loose.”

Riojas remembers this day vividly, admitting that sometimes, he can still smell blood when he wakes up.

“My pant legs were soaked with blood because I cradled his head in my lap,” Riojas said. “I’ll never forget the way he looked at me. I’ve never forgotten his beautiful eyes. He looked at me, but he couldn’t speak because he had blood coming out of his mouth and there were gurgling sounds. All I could do was talk to him and tell him he would be all right.”

During Saturday’s ceremony, Stamos expressed gratitude that the last person Yllan saw was someone who loved him.

Riojas’s love for Yllan motivated him to have his dead friend’s name inscribed on the memorial wall at St. Peter’s, enlisting the financial assistance of the Clovis Marine Corps League Detachment 14. The engraving was completed last month, a moment he said was long overdue.

At the wall, Riojas and his girlfriend presented Yllan’s family with gifts, including the original flag bearing his name and some pictures of Yllan with his squad.

Dave Rosette, who was Yllan’s childhood friend and who considered Yllan his blood brother, appreciated Riojas’ efforts to organize the small service. He gave his own testimony of the darkness he felt for years, but said that the service dispelled the darkness and gave him the closure he needed.

After Yllan died, his father entrusted the task of transporting the body to Rosette, who was 19 at the time. Rosette – who had known Yllan since the second grade, joined the Marines with him through the buddy program and went through boot camp with him – stayed with his body at all times over the three-day journey from Okinawa, Japan, to the funeral home in Fresno.

Veteran Red Garcia, who was a sniper in Yllan and Riojas’ unit, drove with his wife from Texas to be present for the ceremony. He said that while he did not fight as closely with Yllan, the fact they spoke Spanish, ate Mexican food and were committed to serving their country bound them together more tightly.

“I’ve never been touched like this, to see someone brought back to life,” Garcia said. “This guy, he’s been resurrected. I saw it in these people’s eyes.” He noted that the ceremony differed from any other he has been to, because Yllan had died during the war, not later.

“We don’t leave these people behind,” he said. “And the person doesn’t really die until we die. When we die, then the story goes. What they felt for this man, they carried this back. We have this person here. We bring him back, and we carry him every day.”

JoAnna Kroeker: 559-441-6247, @jobethkroeker