Across the Maumee River at International Park, Latinos who served during the Vietnam War paused to reflect on comrades and colleagues who never made it home safely, as they studied the Cost of Freedom Vietnam Traveling Wall.
Because of the Vietnam War-era exhibit, organizers of MidWest LatinoFest expected the festival crowd to swell from the 2,200 people last year to more than 4,500.
More than 30 veterans and active-duty military officers participated in a special festival recognition Saturday evening. Each man and woman attending was awarded a commemorative gold coin. The Lou Diamond Marine Corp League 272, Toledo, presented the colors at the ceremony and fired a 21-gun salute during the playing of Taps.
Eagle Awards were presented by Haraz Ghanbari (military liaison of the University of Toledo) to Ismael “Izzy” Ortiz, Raúl Hinohosa, Hector Flores, Sr., and the George Plasencio Family (George, Esteban, and Lindsay).
Military service is a common tradition among Latinos, especially Mexican-American families. Anyone with a valid military ID received free admission to MidWest LatinoFest.
The traveling wall, which bears the names of those who died during the Vietnam War, drew thousands of people. Alongside the display, vintage military equipment was on display—such as a Huey helicopter (which made numerous flights down the Maumee River) and Toledo-made Jeeps that were used in past conflicts.
Felipito García, 61, served with the 82nd Airborne during the Vietnam War. He nearly broke down in tears when discussing his experiences there.
“I can’t believe my name ain’t on there—it should be on there,” he said. “I should be one of those guys, too. I was just very lucky.”
García served as a mechanic, fixing tanks and other vehicles. While he never saw direct combat, he was always stationed near the front lines during his three-year tour of duty in the early 1970s.
“They took care of me and I took care of them,” he said. “I was with those guys. I get real choked-up. They were my buddies and protected me, because they counted on me to make sure their stuff ran good, ya know.”
Since it was 40 years ago, García stated he had a hard time remembering the names of his fellow servicemen who never made it home. But he knew they were represented on the wall.
“We all had nicknames—like Frog, Turtle, Rat, Dog, Sarge,” he explained.
García enlisted right after graduating from Northwood High School as a 19-year old. He became a specialist. He appreciated the long-overdue recognition, handshakes, and thank-you’s from other people who came to see the wall. For him, it was the first time viewing the display.
“When I came home, it was real bad,” he recalled. “I couldn’t get a job. People hated me, called me ‘baby-killer’ and stuff like that. I had nothing to do with that. I wasn’t that kind of a soldier.”
García had a special message for young people who came to look at the wall, many of whom had only studied the Vietnam War briefly in a textbook.
“Freedom is not free. One day it’s going to be your turn and I hope you’re a survivor like I am,” he said. “If you die, you die for your country. We have to do that.”
Still others came to the traveling wall to honor lost loved ones. Lisa Kistler brought her young children to the wall, in search of some of her late father’s war buddies.
Albert Torres, Jr. served in the Air Force’s 336th Fighter Wing during the Vietnam War. Torres was not a pilot, but still flew combat missions and bombing runs during a four-year hitch from 1970-74. He died two years ago from pancreatic cancer.
“We went to the traveling wall when it first came (to Toledo) and it was an emotional visit,” she recalled. “Even for him just to step over here. He was crying. At this point, he would be proud. He would show us: ‘here’s what I did. Here’s what we did. I’m proud to say this is what I did.’ The first time, though, it was really heart-wrenching. I think he regretted not telling us the stories, because a lot of them don’t want to share their stories. It was horror.”
But Mrs. Kistler came back to learn a little bit more about her father. He left behind no war photos or mementos. She speculated they were lost over the years when the family moved.
“All we have are his papers and dog tags. We had to get the dog tags remade because they were so damaged,” she said. “We don’t have his uniforms or his pictures. I don’t even know where to start to get anything. But we do know everything we need to know about where he served, when he served.”
Mrs. Kistler went on the Internet and studied the history of her father’s unit, photos, and other details of the time period he served in Vietnam. Her hope was to recognize and meet some of his fellow war veterans.
“I think it’s safe to say he would have been absolutely happy to be here, say ‘Do I know this guy’ or ‘Let me see if I know this guy,’ she said. “He was that kind of guy. Everybody absolutely loved him. Everybody knew him and loved him and it was an absolute honor to know him and he left back an awesome legacy. I’m glad to be here and say I’m doing it for him.”
Mrs. Kistler stated she continues to try to help veterans as a way of honoring her father’s memory. She had volunteered earlier in the day at the welcome tent to the display.
Torres came home and served as the mayor of Milton Center, Ohio, for more than three decades. Mrs. Kistler stated cancer took his life very quickly in early 2011. The family had thrown a large 60th birthday party for him in August 2010; then he presided over her wedding that October. But he died the following winter, just weeks after his diagnosis.
His family traveled to Cleveland last Father’s Day to participate in a memory walk to raise money for pancreatic cancer research. On his birthday last summer, they launched purple balloons with messages inside to honor his memory. A Father’s Day observance is still in the planning stages for next weekend.
83-year old Korean War veteran Henry Duenas seemed almost taken aback whenever someone thanked him for his military service. He toured a military display with help from his daughter.
“I get emotional about it, that’s why,” he said. “I lost people. That’s all. I lost a nephew during Vietnam.”
The former sergeant and tank commander served in 1951. Duenas came back to his native Toledo and worked for 30 years at Toledo Stamping before he retired.
“The wall chokes me up, because we never had anything like that,” he said. “We were in what they called ‘The Forgotten War,’ the Korean War.”