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By Monique Quintero

The rain came down hard and fast on the September morning my family held the funeral mass at St. Mary’s in Whittier for my uncle Bobby.

Robert Daniel Quintero preferred to be called “Roberto” in his last years. We placed his urn, along with a potted cactus (to represent his beloved Tucson) and his framed portrait on a table in front of the altar. His weathered, handsome face grinned back at us. I had taken the photograph two years before; his long hair was pulled back, mustache and beard nicely trimmed.

Later that afternoon we brought his ashes to the Riverside National Cemetery. It drizzled until the sun broke through the clouds as his military honors ceremony concluded. As I watched my Dad search the grassy area for bullet casings that had fallen from the gun salute, it occurred to me that rain can be cleansing and also revealing. I realized that the unexpected passing of my uncle, though shocking and sad, was an end with which he was probably content. He was finally at peace.

A month before, Roberto would have been 65 years old. My family and I had sung “Happy Birthday” on his voicemail and texted messages when he did not pick up. My sister worried when he did not reply.

“He’s probably out with his veteran friends,” I said, “somewhere in Tucson where there is no cell reception.” I figured he was out hiking or performing a Native American ceremony.

The next day my Mom was concerned; she called the authorities and asked for a home check. A half hour later, my Dad’s cell phone rang. It was the Tucson police; they had entered my uncle’s apartment and had found him inside, deceased.

* *

When I was growing up, my uncle Bobby was a mystery to me. I rarely saw him. I didn’t understand why relatives whispered his name; I often heard my grandmother, Angelina, praying for him. I had the sense that he had no permanent residence, and that he traveled a lot. And yet I felt so connected to him.

One summer morning when I was 11 years old, I told my Mom I had a dream about Bobby.

“Well,” she told me, “today is your uncle’s birthday.”

In my young mind, my uncle was an “adventurer,” a “man of the world.” I was so proud of the Japanese doll that he had given to me. It was always exciting to receive a letter from him postmarked from some far off place; I kept them all in a special box. When he did show up for a visit, I was enthralled. Not until much later did I understand that his sporadic appearances were a sign of deeper problems.

Roberto grew up in East Los Angeles, the third child of four children. My dad Joe is first, second my aunt Herlinda, my uncle Adrian the youngest. My grandfather, Joe Sr., hailed from Yuma, Arizona, and was part Yaqui Indian. He was a hard worker and made good money as a brick mason, but often hid his earnings from my grandmother. He liked to drink and run around with other women. Sometimes he did not come home for days. When he did come home, he was often drunk, argued, shouted and beat his wife and oldest sons.

My grandmother Angelina did her best to protect and provide for her children. She made sacrifices to send them to Catholic school, while also instilling a respect for our Mexican-Indian roots. She was a curandera (medicine woman) and practiced healing with herbs and special prayers. But even my grandmother had her moments.

Wherever my grandfather was, she would stand at the back door and throw curses in that direction. He would leave her black and blue, but then she would put the children on the phone and have them beg him to come home. When my dad was 16, he pulled a kitchen knife on my grandfather and threatened to stab him if he did not stop hurting my grandmother. My grandfather eventually left my grandmother, started another family and moved back to Yuma.

High school proved a challenge for my uncle. He already had a problem with alcohol. He was constantly in trouble at school and at home. His antics culminated with “borrowing” his sister’s car – without permission or a driver’s license – and wrecking it. Even my grandmother, who always made excuses for him, was upset. Having no interest in attending college, and wanting to get away from home and East L.A., my uncle entered the U.S. Army after graduation in 1968, in the middle of the Vietnam War. He was stationed in Japan.

When Roberto filed for some veteran’s benefits in 2013, I helped him write his four-page personal statement. That was when I learned of the psychological and physical trauma he had experienced during his Army years.

Not only was he constantly taunted as “The Boy from East L.A.,” he was beaten up for “being Mexican” by other soldiers at boot camp (where he was left for dead) and also while stationed in Japan (where he blamed “Japanese gangs” rather than deal with repercussions from turning in fellow soldiers). The head, neck and back injuries that he suffered from those assaults plagued him for the rest of his life.

Though he never set foot in Vietnam, my uncle’s assignment in Japan was to escort soldiers on leave from the action. He listened to their harrowing combat stories; he was there when they woke up screaming from nightmares and when they suffered flashbacks. Years later he himself was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

After the Army, my uncle had trouble transitioning to civilian life. Twice my Dad bailed him out for possession of marijuana. He grew out his hair and took on the ‘70s hippie look. When his girlfriend Camille became pregnant, my grandmother hoped he would settle down, but they eventually parted.

My grandmother wanted him to stay in Los Angeles, but Roberto moved around a lot. He took low-key jobs (bookkeeper, personal assistant) in remote California towns. He tried living in the Midwest, but didn’t like it. He went to Paris and worked “under the table” until his visa expired. He was never able to stay employed for long. After he left the Army, my uncle estimated that in 37 years he had held over 100 positions in 14 different career fields.

With no steady income, Roberto was prone to periods of homelessness and wandering alone. He was bad about keeping in touch. At one point my Dad figured he was dead. Bobby’s anxiety became such that he carried as many as three knives for protection. He would remain bedridden for days without picking up his mail, much less showering. He did see psychiatrists and was prescribed medications, but some left him vomiting and feeling like a guinea pig.

“During those times, rational thought was drowned-out by the racket going on in my brain,” he told me.

In 2005, my uncle found himself in a little town called Oracle, Arizona. He was homeless for most of the time, but ended up living in a trailer park surrounded by a bunch of other Vietnam veterans. His drinking got out of control and he chain-smoked. He was often very ill; he sank into a deep depression.

He was issued disability benefits by 2006 after being diagnosed as “bi-polar mixed with major depression,” and with degenerative disk disease. Friends urged him to apply for veteran’s health and compensation benefits, but his Army experience left him reluctant. He finally relented and was taken to Veterans Affairs in Tucson where a treatment plan was created for him. He completed a recovery program and was given housing in a senior apartment complex.

As Roberto continued his therapy, he had bouts of insomnia and nightmares. The bad memories from his Army days resurfaced and he was diagnosed with PTSD, along with other neurological disorders (cognitive dysfunction, self-isolation, paranoia). He tried to quit smoking but was unsuccessful. He had to use a cane to walk. He felt fatigued, even if he rested all day.

By 2008, Roberto was on 14 medications. He hated that he could not think clearly. His stomach was constantly upset. He began to look into alternative ways to relieve the bad side effects. A friend suggested he practice meditation and breathing exercises. He attended workshops on stress-relief and self-healing techniques.

Then in 2010 Roberto met a former Marine who facilitated a weekly Talking Circle for a PTSD treatment unit at the VA. Drawing from sacred Native American traditions, the group provided a safe, comfortable environment for veterans to share their stories and listen to each other.

Something clicked. He remembered a counselor had once told him, “You want to get better? Go help other veterans.”

He pushed himself to volunteer and help lead the Talking Circle. He did not want to relive his old nightmares, yet he found strength as he witnessed his fellow veterans healing through sharing. The Talking Circle also reconnected him with his father’s Yaqui Indian roots and the best memories of his mother practicing as a curandera. He started to participate in other traditional Native American ceremonies – the purifying sweat lodge, pow wows and the sacred burning of sage.

Life now had purpose and roots. With this, he let go of his resentments and the memories from his Army years.

He continued to pursue more natural and holistic remedies to treat his medical problems. When his doctors resisted, he petitioned the VA and was awarded the right to seek acupuncture sessions for pain management and to increase his mobility. Still he continued to drink and smoke.

“At least I don’t do heroin,” he said.

He and my Dad spoke several times a week, but we did not see very much of my uncle the last year of his life. He declined our invitation to visit and celebrate the December 2014 holidays. He was too busy with this various groups; by then he was leading the Talking Circle on his own.

I was worried about him at the start of summer of 2015; I did not like his appearance in photos that he had recently emailed. I thought he looked gaunt, his hair and beard grayer and thinner.

He assured me that he had never felt better and had just been taken off another medication. He also exalted the benefits of fasting, that he felt more clear-headed and energized. Some his last voicemail messages, though, rambled on and sounded garbled, as if he had been drinking.

Six days before his body was found, my uncle’s neighbors had gone to his apartment when they realized they hadn’t seen him for a while. He barely cracked the door open; he insisted he was all right. The Tucson Coroner’s office later told me that he had suffered a heart attack. He had probably been sick for a few days.

He had not seen a doctor in over a year; he had stopped taking medications on his own. His fasting had not helped matters, according to the Coroner’s office. He had avoided his VA case manager the last month of his life.

It is frustrating to think that if Roberto had just let his neighbors in or reached out for help, he might still be here. But that was my uncle.

* *

The last time I saw my uncle, I gave him a medallion imprinted with the words “The difference you make today counts in all our tomorrows” encircling the impression of an inukshuk, stones stacked to form the shape of a man. In Alaska, these stones were built by nomadic Inuits to help guide others travel across the tundra.

Roberto is wearing the medallion in pictures taken during his final year. My Dad brought it back to me after cleaning out his apartment.

It is now so worn and faded; he must have rarely taken it off.

___

Monique Quintero grew up in Whittier and has been writing all her life. A graduate of UC Irvine with a B.A. in Critical Film Studies, she has worked over 20 years in various areas of the entertainment industry. Since 2013 she has been dealing with a brain tumor and kidney cancer; she found that the writing process not only inspires creativity, it is also therapeutic and healing. She is determined to finish a full-length book project in the near future. Contact her atmoniquequintero@yahoo.com

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By Andrew Ramirez

[dropcap1]B[/dropcap1]ombs fell and the shrapnel cut through the soldiers and burned like molten lava as enemy troops advanced on them through the Vietnam jungle.

Bullets hissed by, hitting tree, rock and man. Enemy chatter echoed out of the marsh. Soldiers from Recon Company took cover and fired.

Among them was Private Louis Ramirez, a 140-pound nineteen year-old boy from the streets of Northeast Los Angeles. Ramirez had been drafted into the U.S. Army. His father had petitioned the Office of the President for a reprieve. His other son, Edmund Jr., older by two minutes, had volunteered and was fighting as a seasoned jarhead in the North. The request was granted.

But Louis Ramirez had other plans. Confused and directionless, he sought purpose and his place in the world. He defied his father’s wishes and shipped off to fight in Vietnam.

He was assigned to a battalion of South Vietnamese Regulars. Their job was to provide air support.

This particular morning was like every other since the Tet Offensive. The North Vietnamese broke traditional cease fire agreement during the country’s Lunar New Year celebrations and left all Vietnam in bloody battles.

So now a few months in, Recon Company had left base camp that morning and headed out on another search and destroy mission against a gathering of Viet Cong in a local village.

*

In a small Victorian in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, two children ran about playing. Valerie was two and her brother, Anthony, Jr., was four. Their infant brother, Ricky, slept in the back room.

Their mother, Hilda, finished cooking dinner and prepared to leave.

Anthony Sr. arrived from work.

He chatted with Hilda and his in-laws. They talked of the party they planned for the return of Hilda’s brothers, the twins: Edmund Ramirez, Jr. was in Barstow, processing out of the Marine Corp; Private Louis Ramirez was in combat in Vietnam, two weeks from discharge.

“Can you watch little Ricky?” Hilda asked her husband. “He’s asleep in the back and I’m going with my mom and dad to Sears to get Father’s Day gifts.”

Anthony nodded.

Anthony and Hilda hugged and kissed.

They piled into the black Hillman sedan. Hilda’s father, Edmund, sat behind the wheel, Hilda by his side. Anita sat in back with Valerie on her lap and Anthony Jr. on her side.

The engine started.

Anthony Sr. stood at the door and watched them drive off.

*

The drive took two hours of twisting and turning through the jungle before they came to a clearing. The men jumped off the Armored Personnel Carriers to continue on foot. There were no more roads.

Splashes of water and mud flew with the thumping of military issue boots. The sun beat and the bush felt like a sauna. One hundred and twenty men sloshed through the high brush, searching for the enemy.

Ramirez carried a radio pack and an M-16 while surveying the land as his fellow soldiers chatted in Vietnamese. He could only discern a few words.

Beads of sweat rolled down brow and neck. White smoke filled the atmosphere as the soldiers exhaled from their standard issue. The soldiers swatted red ants crawling up their legs. Dead and stinking bodies lay throughout. There had been battles here before.

Trudging through three feet of water and mud was exhausting. The men checked their fatigues to ensure they were tightly wrapped. Leaches were bad here. They couldn’t keep them all out.

A village appeared in the distance. They approached it through a rice patty and interrogated the village women and children. There were no men. All were fighting as guerrillas in the surrounding hills in the war. The Vietnamese commander screamed at the women.

“Where are they?”

Confused, the women screamed back what sounded like cuss words. Then the answer came.

Shots fired. Grenades exploded. Twenty yards away at the nearby creek, a group of his men who had proceeded to survey the land were pinned down and now engaged in a firefight. “Get down, take cover,” yelled a young soldier, clenching his cold M-16, bayonet fixed in place.

From the marsh appeared a soldier yelling in Vietnamese, “Medic! Medic!” interrupted by gunfire.

Before long the entire village and platoon was surrounded. Bullets rang from every direction. More grenades. Men were cut down left and right. The Vietnamese commander looked to his American advisors and yelled for an air strike.

Ramirez grabbed the microphone. There was time only to react. He had been trained, like a machine, to carry out the mission. Months prior, he might have frozen in shock. As a new infantryman in battle he had felt inept. Men had ridiculed his jumpiness at the sound of gunfire. Not today.

“Bourbon bucket Alpha, this is Bourbon bucket Bravo. We got Charlie hittin’ us pretty good right now. We need some air power. Requesting air support. Friendlies marked by green flares, I say again requesting immediate air support, friendlies marked with green flares. Bring ‘em in close…”

Soon, on the horizon, the sun reflected off the windows of choppers loaded with guns and missiles. The propeller blades cut the air. Their loud thump beat like the young hearts below.

They banked as if floating in the breeze. Then like hawks diving for prey, they dipped and emptied their shells. Ramirez felt the heat of the missiles on his face. Heavy artillery flew like shooting stars towards the enemy stronghold and balls of fire lit up the sky.

Ramirez looked at the beautiful chaos surrounding him.

“I can’t wait to tell Eddie.”

He admired his older brother and respected him. Eddie had just written, telling him of the party the family had planned for his return. Soon they would be together.

The choppers departed and silence came. Private Ramirez cleared his eyes from the smoke and debris and saw his remaining brothers-in-arms alive, guns in hand, peering into the smoke. He looked to the heavens and thanked a God he had not talked to in some time.

*

Sirens blared near the 7th Street onramp to the Interstate 5 Freeway as the firemen ripped away at the mangled metal trying to remove the lifeless bodies inside. It was just after sunset on a hot summer’s night.

In a reported attempt to avoid the oncoming semi, Edmund Ramirez Sr. lost control of the small Hillman sedan. The wheels locked and the car rolled. The roof ripped off. Bodies flew and smashed into the concrete.

Ramirez, a stout man, freshly turned sixty, hunched over the steering wheel still. He grasped it with stubborn might, exerting his last force of energy on the broken vinyl steering wheel.

Just outside three others were spread out. Hilda, a young mother, and her son Anthony Jr. were both dead. Valerie was found wandering the freeway.

On the backseat floor lay a woman nearly sixty.

“She’s alive!” cried a fireman.

Unconscious but breathing, she was rushed to the hospital, alone.

*

Several weeks after the firefight and the gunships that saved his platoon, still fighting in the bush, Private Ramirez heard radio chatter.

“Only him?” asked the sergeant.

“That’s right. We’re coming to pick up Bravo. He’s coming out.”

Ramirez and the Sarge looked at each other.

“We are in the middle of a firefight — not advisable, over.”

The voice on the radio insisted.

“Bravo is coming out…relay your coordinates, over.”

The Sarge turned to Private Ramirez. “Get your gear.”

Ramirez thought, “I still have two weeks left before my discharge. Why in the hell are they going to pull me out now?”

An hour later, Private Ramirez was back at headquarters, feeling thousands of miles away from the battle zone. A green captain’s jeep awaited his arrival.

“What’s going on?”

“Orders,” the driver answered. “I am to take you over to the Chaplain’s office. That’s all I know. Where’d you come from?”

Ramirez was soaking wet and covered in mud.

“The battle field.”

They passed the familiar rows of Quonset Huts. Chow halls and offices were busy. They passed the bar where Ramirez and his friends went to drink Brown Derby Beer. Off in the distance a mail plane flew in for the daily drop.

A short while later he was in the chaplain’s office.

Captain Crowell had spent months in the field with Ramirez’ battalion earning his service medal badge.

“Sit down, son.”

Private Ramirez sat.

“There’s been an accident back home.”

*

Five years later, Louis Ramirez sat at a desk at home. He now attended the local community college after work and was doing homework. The house was dark and only the desk light illuminated. His wife and daughter were asleep. The clock ticked.

As he was writing, drops of water began to hit the paper. He was confused. His mouth dried. His throat balled up. He shook. Fits of crying overwhelmed him. Tears hit the paper, drenching it. Their sound grew louder. The drops resembled muffled shots of M-16s. He closed his eyes. He was lost.

He had stepped back on American soil less than twenty four hours after leaving battle in Vietnam. On the tarmac, his brother Eddie, brother-in-law Tony, and friend Dan hugged him.

On the ride to the hospital they bombarded him with details of the accident. He wasn’t sad. A year in the bush had left him numb. His mind began to drift. All he wanted was to share stories from Vietnam. When he responded, the only words he spoke were of war.

At the hospital, his mother was in a sling, bandaged from head to toe, her back broken. She was conscious.

“Mother, I’m home.”

She wept.

At the funeral parlor they rolled out two caskets from the freezer.

His father lay in a casket wearing a black suit and tie; in another lay his sister holding her young son in her arms.

They were like every other dead body he had seen while roaming the Vietnam countryside. Scenes of the war flashed through his head. He remembered every encounter, every skirmish and battle. He was devoutly Catholic but he recalled desperately wanting to kill the enemy. … “Die motherfuckers!”

Now he stared at the faces of his dead father, sister and nephew and thought, “This is what I deserve.”

He tried to cry but found he could not.

So for five years he barely spoke of what he’d seen in Vietnam. It remained with him as he married and had a daughter and found work as a janitor and attended night school.

Now, late at night, his wife, awake, came into the room.

“What’s wrong?”

“My family is dead!”

He continued to sob.

“What?”

“My father is dead. My sister is dead. Little Tony is dead. They are all dead!”

He continued to cry. He tried to stop but found he could not.

____

Andrew L. Ramirez (Two Trips Home) is an aspiring author and speaker. He is happily married and is the father of three beautiful girls. He was born and raised in Northeast Los Angeles. He recently published The Adventures of Alex and Andi, a children’s book series. He hopes to connect with families around the globe as he shares his true stories about his real family.
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By Christian Lockwood

I once had a house with a white picket fence. In it, I lived with a wife, and two children. Life seemed pretty good. But the shell shock from a tour in Libya fighting the war on terrorism tore me up, and drugs and alcohol became a way of life from which I could not free myself.

That is how one warm August day in 2009, well into my self-medication, I awake on the seat of my pickup after another night of no place to rest my head. My pickup, my dog Batman, and my cell phone are all I have left. My wife and kids have been embarrassed by me for the last time. They have disowned me.

I am sweating profusely as most junkies who need a fix experience. The gagging has started. “I need a drink,” I say to myself. If I don’t get one I could die. I am in the DT’s. My skin is crawling as if overrun with bugs. I am drenched in my own bodily fluids. The hallucinations are starting now. It’s  as though I am being pursued by little green men coming from everywhere. A full blown seizure is sure to happen soon. I need a dose bad.

I scuffle across the street to get my medicine. I gag the entire way, only bringing up yellow bile. It’s 5:56 am and this damn storekeeper better not be late today. By 6:05 am, with no store owner in site, I’m getting sicker by the minute.

Finally, at 6:12 he drives up and notices me and my condition. He exchanges pleasantries with me and hurriedly opens the door to let me in. He knows what I need. The storekeeper doesn’t stop to turn the lights on and upon entry goes immediately to the shelf to pull down my elixir.

A pint of Jose Cuervo and a tall Coors are my usual liquid meals. I’m infamous here at this store. They know me all too well. I pay for my stash with change I’ve bummed from passing folks and leave. I barely get away from the storefront and I need to get the first couple of pops in me. The sooner I down it, the better. The first couple never stays down anyway. As predicted up comes the burning alcohol through my nose and mouth. My Boston terrier gazes up at me with a look of “Really?” Then he smells the frothy discharge and laps it up. Wow, I’m turning the damned dog into an alcoholic too. I need to sit down and let these first two swigs work. After a minute or two my gag reflex has given me a reprieve and it’s time now to completely bury my torments in life.

I was once a proud United States sailor with an impeccable service record and receive citations for Honor and Expert Marksmanship. In civilian life I  was a well-respected member of the Tri-County Gang Task Force and had a reputation as a tough cop who was known for fighting gang crime and drug interdiction. Now, in fact, this is more of a hindrance when it comes to copping my dope. Too many of these street people know me. Only my selected posse at Gibbons Park know me as Rocky, just another park dwelling bum like them.

Speaking of my posse, it’s time to get back to the park.  I finally feel fit enough to navigate my way back to my home, the park. I get to our favorite picnic table where we all hold court and share our harrowing tales about surviving the night before. We begin to pass our bottles between us as if in attempt to see who could out-drink who. Then the talk always turns to who has weed, and eventually someone comes up with some to smoke. Then it moves to crystal and soon we are all snorting meth off of a paint chipped picnic table.

Eventually it happens. Black-and-whites drive into the park from all directions; everyone runs but me. I am as if frozen in time. Was it that I was surrendering? Nope, really how fast can a man run with a little black dog tethered to his leg? A cop car stops in front of me and the officer jumps out and immediately opens the back door.

“Oh Jesus,” I say to myself. I know this officer.

I quickly drop my head hiding my face and obey every command. I am frisked, and out comes my driver’s license. The officer puts his hand on my shoulder and yanks me toward him forcefully.

“Lockwood?” he asks.

“Yes, it’s me bro,” I reply. I used to work Gang sweeps with this officer on multi-agency procedures.

“What in the world has happened to you?” my buddy asks. “You need help.”

My cop friend for some reason lets me go. My posse, on the other hand, is not so lucky.

Once again I am alone, the dog and I. It was time for another drink. I feel lucky. I stumble to my truck and upon trying to get into the driver’s door I see my reflection in the window. My cop friend’s voice rings loudly in my head as I stare at somebody I don’t even recognize looking back at me. I have checked out of life completely.

The day before a church guy had stopped by the park and gave us all sandwiches, talking “God” the entire time. We all pretended to listen because we were actually thankful someone was feeding us. He quoted the Bible and said something from the book of Romans that while we don’t want to do wrong, we are powerless to stop. He quoted scripture that didn’t make sense to me at the time. But it was all making quite good sense now.  I was a proud United States Military Veteran who was trained to adapt and overcome. But I can’t figure out why I am destroying myself when deep down inside I don’t want to.

I recall a saying I saw on a flier I saw at the VA Clinic. It said, “It takes the courage of a warrior to ask for help.”

The time has come. I need to ask for help. I pull out my dying cell phone and make one last call. They send someone to come to the park and pick up Batman and me.

I haven’t had a drink or a drug since that August day in 2009.  I have started a new journey in life. That’s who I am now.

____

*Christian Lockwood is studying at San Joaquin Delta College and Bible College at Fellowship Church Community in Stockton and aspires to be an ordained pastor and serve military veterans in San Joaquin County.

 

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