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Emotional Visit to War Memorial : Eight Vietnam Veterans From Southland Pay Respects


President Clinton and families of veterans who believe he dodged the draft during the war in Southeast Asia received much media attention at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington on Memorial Day. But standing in the sea of protesters were eight veterans from the Los Angeles area who were pleased to be so close to a commander in chief.

We went to the Wall to pay respect to guys who died in the war. And we saw a President.

Our group of former GIs--seven Mexican-Americans and one Anglo--were dressed in jungle fatigues decorated with medals and ribbons and patches sewn in the proper places. Although traveling privately, we were members of U.S. Vietnam Veterans of Southern California, a group of about 50 based in West Covina.

Before and after Clinton's speech, news reporters from as far away as Scandinavia asked members of our group how we felt about the President's attendance and the veterans who were angry he was there. Clinton is the first President to have made a public appearance at the memorial, even though it is 10 years old.

We said most Americans who were sent to Vietnam did not want to be there, so how could we hold the President's anti-war sentiments against him? Don Usery of Montclair, a former Marine who was wounded on the battlefield, told a reporter he was honored to have Clinton went to the Wall. Usery, 46, said Clinton showed he cared about Vietnam vets.

Another former Marine, Mike Delgado of Whittier, did not appreciate the protesters. Delgado, 44, who fought during the historic siege against the U.S. encampment at Khe Sanhh, said: "I totally disagree that there should be any demonstration at all at the Wall, because the Wall is too sacred a place for me to have a protest going on."

Each member of the group said he was glad they all made their first pilgrimage to the memorial together. They were what Manny Ramos of San Gabriel, an Army veteran and recipient of the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, called a "squad"--a team of about eight guys in Vietnam who were sent on missions together.

The group said the journey to "the Wall that heals" was planned around Memorial Day because of the ceremony and patriotism associated with the holiday. "It's been over 20 years since we've been back from the Vietnam experience," said Ed Rodriguez, 43, of East Los Angeles, a highly decorated Army medic who survived three helicopter crashes in combat and was wounded twice.

"It's been over 10 years since the monument itself has been there . . . and it's taken this long for some of us to, I guess in a sense, build up the courage to make the trip." As planned, the group made its first visit to the memorial in the middle of the night to avoid the usual large crowds.

The vets approached the polished black granite slowly, initially looking for no name in particular. Then within minutes the search was on.

Dave De La Cruz of Alhambra, a former Marine who was also wounded in combat said, "What really touched me was when I looked at it and went along the rim, the top rim, and I could see that there were trees in the background. It was kind of fitting in some ways, because it reminded me of what we used to call the 'bush line' or the 'tree line' that some of these guys were killed either coming out of or going into."

"Most of my friends are on three panels," said De La Cruz, 46. "It was (strange) to realize that I finally got a chance to see where they're really at. That's where they're etched in memory."

Usery said: "It's sad if anybody dies. But if you knew that person, it has more meaning, especially if you had a friendship, almost as if it were a family member. In Vietnam we were all family. We were all in the same boat."

Early on Memorial Day before the President spoke, the group conducted a brief ceremony that involved placing two plaques on the panel inscribed with the name of Henry Valenzuela Jr. He was one of 12 young men from San Gabriel who were killed in action in Vietnam.

The city presented one of the plaques to San Gabriel residents Manny Ramos, 45, and me, a 37-year-old Air Force veteran who was assigned to maintenance on the SR-71 spy plane during the war. The plaque honored everyone who served faithfully in the U.S. military during the war. The group also left our own plaque, which read:

DEDICATED TO ALL THOSE WHO SERVED IN THE U.S. ARMED FORCES DURING THE VIETNAM WAR AND ESPECIALLY TO THE MEMORY OF THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND Ramos admitted after the trip that he did not express the emotion he actually felt at the Wall, a place vets call "the last firebase." So he has decided to go back.

Ramos described a firebase as "a mini-city everyone visits. 'Donut dollies.' Chaplains have services on Sunday. You get haircuts and whatever."

David Castillo, 45, of Alhambra, a former Marine, said that once he began searching for names on the memorial, "I started looking for the guys (whose fates) I didn't know anything about. The guys I was hoping would make it back.

"I'm glad that I didn't find any of their names," he continued, adding that he had been pleased to have met at the Wall a veteran with whom he had served in Vietnam.

Ted Barragan, also of Whittier and another combat-wounded former Marine, said he tried hard not to break down emotionally at the memorial. Barragan, 45, said he did not want to upset the children and other relatives who were there.

But he later confessed to shedding a tear when two singers, one of them a Vietnam vet, sang the ballad "After the War" during the Memorial Day ceremony. It was about two guys named Billy Johnson and Hector Gonzalez.

The song explained how Billy and Hector became best friends during basic training. They were assigned to different places in Vietnam. Billy survived the war. Hector did not.

A line repeated in the song was: "Don't forget to look me up after the war." Barragan said that traveling to the Wall was his way of doing just that.

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