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He Died Serving U.S.; Now He's a Citizen

Mexican immigrant Juan Terrazas died fighting in Vietnam. At last, Frank De La Vara makes his war buddy's dream come true.

November 20, 2005|Sam Quinones | Times Staff Writer

They knew each other only a short time, but Frank De La Vara and Juan Terrazas became as close as brothers when they served together in Vietnam.

Drafted into the military, the two Mexican immigrants from Los Angeles were so-called green card soldiers who hoped to gain U.S. citizenship when they returned to their adopted homeland.

De La Vara would realize his dream; Terrazas would not. The 21-year-old Bronze Star recipient was killed in combat on July 9, 1969.

De La Vara never forgot his friend.

For the next 35 years, he made annual visits to Terrazas' grave at Resurrection Cemetery in Montebello. Through failed relationships and periods of self-doubt, De La Vara found his emotional anchor in these pilgrimages.

"We were the brother that neither one of us ever had," he said.

Stirred by recent news reports of noncitizen soldiers being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, De La Vara, 58, embarked on a mission to obtain posthumous citizenship for his fallen colleague.

Support from Terrazas' family was crucial.

After one emotionally strained meeting with Terrazas' mother shortly after her son's death, De La Vara had lost contact with the family. Then, in 2000, at the urging of his wife, he decided to reach out again.

He'd seen the flowers and gravesite mementos left at the cemetery by Terrazas' family. So on one of his regular visits he left a note with his phone number in a plastic bag and tucked it into an empty vase.

Two weeks later, he received a call from Terrazas' youngest sister, Velia Ortega.

"It caught me by surprise," De La Vara said, remembering the moment. "I didn't think anybody would call. They were glad to hear from me."

With the help of the family and a local immigration official, also a Vietnam veteran, De La Vara obtained Terrazas' citizenship papers. It took him four months and cost him $80 to process the application.

Saturday, on what would have been Terrazas' 58th birthday, De La Vara joined his friend's family at his graveside to mark the occasion.

It was the best he could do for his buddy, he said.

"The only honor we got was among ourselves," De La Vara said of his Vietnam brethren.

"[Terrazas] was forgotten, and I didn't want it to stay that way."

*

Terrazas' family moved to Los Angeles from Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1954, when he was 6.

In high school, he joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps and already had begun to map out his life's goals.

He wanted to become a U.S. citizen, marry his high school sweetheart and attend college.

Not long after graduation, he was drafted.

Worried for her son, Belia Terrazas urged him to return to Mexico.

"He said he wouldn't be a draft dodger," Ortega said. "After all the years we were here in the U.S., he felt it's not a time to run. It's time to fight for your country."

De La Vara and Terrazas met at a government check-in station in January 1968 in downtown Los Angeles, as they reported for the draft.

They shared much in common. Born one day apart -- on Nov. 18 and 19, 1947 -- both were immigrants and the lone son in a family of girls.

After going through infantry training together, Terrazas and De La Vara arrived in Quang Tri Province in Vietnam in the spring of 1969.

There they would see some of the fiercest fighting of the war.

Terrazas and De La Vara were in light infantry and patrolled the narrow A Shau Valley, where the North Vietnamese were funneling troops into the south.

Their job was to attract enemy fire, withdraw and call in regular infantry.

Of the 24 soldiers in their platoon, 18 were foreign citizens -- from places such as Indonesia, Italy, Turkey and Mexico.

An article in the Stars and Stripes newspaper dubbed them the "United Nations platoon."

"We all spoke with a different accent," De La Vara said.

Life in the jungles was hard. The rain came in sheets. And De La Vara carried Tiparillo cigars to burn off blood-sucking leeches.

Terrazas earned a Bronze Star for providing cover as his platoon retrieved wounded soldiers caught in a Viet Cong ambush. But the heavy fighting took its toll.

At a USO show for the troops at base camp, Terrazas suddenly turned to De La Vara: "If anything happens to me," he told his friend, "make sure my mom and [girlfriend] get my stuff."

A few days later, on the afternoon of July 9, 1969, Terrazas was killed in a firefight in the A Shau Valley, according to Army documents.

His family received letters he had written the week he died, reassuring them that everything was fine and thanking them for packages they had sent.

A story in the Lincoln Heights Bulletin noted that Terrazas was the 13th soldier from the neighborhood killed in action in the previous nine months.

In October 1969, Terrazas' platoon took the oath of U.S. citizenship in Hawaii, along with some 650 other foreign-citizen soldiers.

"That's one of the reasons [Juan] served in the Army -- to be a citizen," said Aurora Carrera, another sister.

When De La Vara returned to Los Angeles, he and a buddy visited Terrazas' family. But the trip was bittersweet.

In her grief, Belia Terrazas said she wished it had been her son coming home instead of De La Vara.

"It was hard," he said. "I know she didn't mean anything."

De La Vara tried to start a new life. He took a job at a gas company, where he worked for the next 30 years. He married three times and had four children.

All the while, he never missed his visits to Terrazas' grave.

"I used to go there just by myself and sit there and think about what was going on with my life," he said.

After De La Vara reunited with Terrazas' family, they agreed to meet each year at the cemetery.

Inspired by De La Vara's efforts, two of Terrazas' sisters -- Irma and Velia -- recently applied for citizenship.

And this week, when she has a few days off, Velia said she will take her 75-year-old mother to do the same after 51 years in the United States.

"We should have done it in his honor before," said Irma Portillo, Juan's older sister. "We just kept putting it off."

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