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A war only he can end

Al Moreno has fought all his life against the shame of his father's desertion of the Navy in 1944. At 60, he wants a tour in Iraq as redemption.

November 11, 2006|Christopher Goffard | Times Staff Writer

There they are in the black-and-white snapshot, the deserter and his firstborn son: Big Al and Little Al Moreno, the man who ran from war and the Marine who is running to it.

In the photo, it's October 1968. The son is graduating from boot camp, about to head to Vietnam. He's 22, bolt-straight in his uniform. On one side, his mom squeezes against him. On the other, his father keeps his distance, wearing a trapped half-smile, his big workman's hands hanging awkwardly at his sides. As his son stands tall, he seems to shrivel. He cannot bring himself to embrace his son, to touch his uniform.

The son keeps the photo in his living room, to remind him. He's looking at it right now, on a sunny afternoon in May. Without that picture and all it represents, what he is about to do makes no sense at all. Moving briskly around his apartment, he gathers up his wallet and car keys. Under his arm, he tucks a manila folder containing his military records. He heads downstairs to his car, where he studies directions to the military recruiting station in Lakewood, not far from his home.

It doesn't show, but he's nervous. He doesn't know how they will respond to a 60-year-old former Marine asking to be sent to Iraq. He wonders if they will snicker at him, finding his motives as quaintly unfathomable as everyone else. Not many men show up asking, nearly 40 years after surviving one war, to plunge into another. Not many come looking to atone for someone else's crime, one that happened 62 years ago, and which everyone else -- the government, his siblings, everyone -- believes was paid for long ago.

Al Moreno is a Newport Beach private eye and a former Los Angeles police officer. He is divorced and lives alone. Since the day in his teens he learned of it, he has been tormented by his father's desertion from the Navy on Feb. 14, 1944.

For almost two decades, Moreno has been trying, in any way he knows how, to close the gap between the bodies in that snapshot. He's written to presidents, to congressmen, to the Justice Department, to anyone who might listen. What he wants is simple: a posthumous pardon for his father, who died destitute in 1977, nearly three decades after the Navy released him from the brig with a dishonorable discharge.

"He died a broken man both physically and mentally," Moreno says. "He saw himself as a total failure."

Though his father failed his country, Moreno has argued in letter after letter, he also worked tirelessly to raise 12 children. And three of them -- Al and his two oldest brothers, Artie and Tony -- volunteered for the military and shipped off to South Vietnam. "I don't know how many families can actually say, 'We sent three boys to war.' " In a man's final ledger, shouldn't that count for something?

"There is a historic tradition where a father's sin can be cleansed, in his stead, by his sons," Moreno wrote in a letter to the first President Bush.

Though some historic figures, such as Robert E. Lee, have received posthumous pardons, the Justice Department's pardon attorney rebuffed Moreno, explaining that such pardons were not "established practice."

Years went by, and he kept trying. Local politicians expressed sympathy but said there was little they could do. The staffs of President Clinton and the second President Bush sent polite brushoffs.

He has been waging the campaign for so long that many of his friends and much of his family think he's delusional, a man chasing a mirage. "It doesn't mean squat to anybody," he says. "They look at you sort of cross-eyed." He can't seem to make people understand what he calls "the curse and the taint in the family blood" caused by his father's desertion, a curse that no one else can see, but which feels as real to him as a scar might be across his face.

Even his brothers, the fellow Vietnam vets, support the general goal of a pardon but don't quite understand what possesses Moreno. "If my brother thinks he can rectify history, that's great," says Artie, 59, an employee for Sequoia National Park. "But what is, is."

Moreno's oldest sister, Irene, who cares nothing for a pardon, recalls that her mother and some of her brothers, including Al, used the desertion against her father in family disputes. The term "yellow-belly" became a sure-fire argument-clincher, the ultimate cudgel. "It tortured my dad," she says. "I think that's one of the reasons he's doing this -- to make up for his cruelty to Dad."

Moreno acknowledges that his relationship with his father was a volatile, sometimes violent one -- they scuffled for years until Big Al found himself overmatched by his growing son -- but he insists he's waging his campaign out of love and duty, not guilt.

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