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Ultimate Sacrifice, Ultimate Insult

Struggling for benefits, a fallen Marine's mom wonders: Must the little people always pay?

October 25, 2002|John W. Flores | John W. Flores is writing a biography of Marine Sgt. Alfredo Gonzalez.

It was 34 years ago that 21-year-old Marine Sgt. Alfredo Gonzalez of Edinburg, Texas, died while defending his platoon from enemy rocket fire during an ambush in Hue City, Vietnam. It was the opening volleys of the horrific Tet offensive. Gonzalez was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor a few months later in a ceremony at the White House.

He was Dolia Gonzalez's only child; she had reared him as a single mother, and since his death she has lived alone.

She works even now as a waitress in the restaurant at a motel, the Echo, in her little border town. Photographs and newspaper stories about Sgt. Gonzalez are all over the walls of the restaurant dining room, and she is something of a celebrity among the townspeople. Recently, she has even been a spokesperson for Tony Sanchez, the first serious Latino candidate for governor in Texas history.

With the Bush administration coiled and ready to strike against Iraq, Gonzalez remembers what happened to her boy. And she offers a solemn, frequent refrain: "My boy was killed in Vietnam, and so were many young men from south Texas and the Rio Grande Valley. Freddy was proud to be a Marine and he gladly put his life on the line. Later, many years later, the truth about Vietnam came out -- that many of those young Americans should not have had to die as they did. It was not an essential sacrifice, we've been told by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara."

Gonzalez is not bitter. She learned decades ago to roll with the sometimes cruel blows of life. She is somehow resilient and hopeful, even in the midst of the chaos and confusion that have permeated much of American society since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

She worries about the 300-plus sailors on board the U.S. destroyer Gonzalez, a highly advanced warship carrying Tomahawk missiles that was named for her son several years ago. Over the years she has come to view these sailors as a part of her family. "I call them 'my boys' and they call me Mom. I don't want anything to happen to them. That's why I hope [authorities] will find a diplomatic solution to this problem with Saddam. Let the United Nations do its work. But for God's sake, let's not do what they did in Vietnam."

President Bush has never experienced war as a soldier, airman, sailor or Marine. He was one of many privileged sons of power able to secure havens in the stateside National Guard.

Young men like Freddy -- Latinos and blacks, mostly poor, with little or no political influence -- were sent in waves to fight. Some called them "cannon fodder" because of the disproportionately high casualty rate among minorities on tours of duty in war zones. These men also racked up a much higher percentage of Medals of Honor, Silver Stars, Bronze Stars and other top awards for valor in combat.

Dolia Gonzalez says she has no quarrel with those like Bush who come from wealthy families. But she is upset about a couple of things these days: Not only is the administration gearing up for a potentially catastrophic conflict in the Middle East, but it also is pushing to cut vital veterans' benefits.

Several years ago, when Bush's father was president, the Veterans Administration cut off the survivor benefits that she had been receiving since her son's death, saying she could not both work and receive benefits.

"I have appealed over and over to have them restored, but nobody will work with me. They just basically always shut the door in my face," she says.

Without these benefits, Gonzalez must work full time. "I am 73 now, and I work as a waitress. It's the only job I know. But my health won't hold out forever. Then what?" she asks.

Gonzalez is also concerned that she won't be able to afford the expensive medications that come with the maladies of time, especially if Bush has his way in cutting Medicare, as has been proposed.

"It seems like these rich people want us poor people to just dry up and blow off into the sunset like tumbleweeds or something. I guess then we'd be out of their way," she says.

Gonzalez still firmly believes in the clarion call to volunteerism and patriotism from President John F. Kennedy in his 1961 inaugural address: " ... ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

It was a statement of purpose that helped propel millions of young men and women into national volunteerism and the service of their country, including her son.

"I do not want anything handed to me. That is why I work and do not ask for anything other than what I work for, and what my son earned by giving his life," she says. "Before he died he sent me a letter and said he was going to come back and take care of me and build a big house for us to live in. He never got that chance."

Today, Dolia Gonzalez hopes to spread the word that people can empower themselves to bring about change.

"We -- the common, average Americans -- are the ones who suffer when war is declared, not those who declare it. We are the ones who give our children, never to see them again. We are the ones who pay the bills of war. And we are the ones who will keep on paying," she says.

"We are the soldiers and Marines in that daily battle. We can either stand up and fight with honor and courage and defend our loved ones and ourselves, or run away in disgrace and lose everything."

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