I haven't been particularly observant of Memorial Day in recent years. My father, who fought in the Pacific during World War II, always told me of the importance of honoring the men and women of the armed forces. He was right, of course, but the bitterness I felt after my tour in Vietnam made me uncomfortable when the holiday came around.
I treated it more like a much-needed three-day weekend.
However, several things have made me look forward to today's observance.
Army Sgt. Raphael Lorenzo (Larry) Collazo finally has come home 25 years after being buried in an unmarked grave in Vietnam. He was one of an estimated 2,260 Americans reported missing after the war.
Not only was it good news that his remains were identified and shipped home, but despite the passage of time, Collazo's family wasn't alone when it came time to properly bury him. David Rodriguez and about 30 other L.A.-area Vietnam veterans, who didn't know Collazo, were drawn to the solemn interment ceremony in Westwood for no other reason than to say goodby to a "brother."
And secondly, "CT Andy," the former infantry grunt from City Terrace whom I met while in Vietnam, called to say he's got a job. When I wrote about him in February, I reported how Andy ran away in embarrassment when I accidentally discovered that he was selling oranges in East L.A. in order to hang on to his dream house in Hacienda Heights.
Today, he wants to celebrate because he's got a steady job selling home computers.
Rodriguez knew he had to welcome Collazo home. He said Collazo reminded him of two buddies in the 9th Infantry Division who didn't make it back. They drowned and their bodies were never recovered, he said. On each trip to Washington, Rodriguez said, he faithfully scans the wall of the Vietnam War memorial for their names, but they aren't there.
His own return from the war went largely unnoticed and unappreciated--a feeling many Vietnam vets share. So upon learning that Collazo died in 1968, the same year he served in Vietnam, Rodriguez decided to seek out the soldier's family and let the relatives know that he was thinking of them.
"I called the family to pay my respects," said Rodriguez, 45, who works for the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing. "(Collazo's mother) seemed to sense my own hurt about the war. She talked to me as if she was paying her respects to me as well."
So, Rodriguez and a hometown friend from Fresno went to last Tuesday's service for the sergeant.
"I'm very sympathetic to MIA and POW issues, but I was just happy to be there," Rodriguez said.
He couldn't fit into his jungle fatigues but he pinned a war citation--the combat infantryman's badge--on the lapel of his blazer to honor Collazo.
The 30 or so veterans of Southeast Asia marched in unison to the grave site and stood attentively as Collazo was laid to rest. Then, taps was played and Rodriguez broke down in tears. "It just opened up old wounds," he recalled.
Despite the rekindling of bitter memories and old arguments, this was one comrade in arms that Rodriguez and the other vets couldn't ignore.
"I didn't know him personally," Rodriguez said, "but he was like a lot of others I knew in Vietnam. I felt good about being there for him."
It was an excited Andy who called the other day. "I got a job," he shouted into the telephone.
His joy was a far cry from the bitter language Andy used in February. He had lost his defense-related job after 13 years and couldn't find steady work in nearly a year of trying. His story put in human terms the recession that has vexed Southern California. With a wife and two kids, he vowed to keep the home he had purchased three years ago in Hacienda Heights, which many Chicanos consider their version of Beverly Hills.
He was so desperate to keep up the mortgage payments that he sold $2 packages of oranges on street corners in East L.A.
His story prompted numerous offers of help but Andy refused all of them. "I admit I'm a stupid macho Chicano," he said, "but I don't want handouts."
His break came when a motorist, who gave him $10 for two packages of oranges, noticed something about his demeanor. Andy told the motorist that he had done electronics-related work before losing the job. One thing led to another and Andy eventually landed work in a computer store near Pomona.
He telephoned to invite me to the Chicano Beverly Hills to celebrate Memorial Day and his good fortune.
When I told him about Sgt. Collazo, he said, "We can celebrate his return, too."