Family Finally Gets Vietnam Vet on Wall
Enrique Valdez, who became a quadriplegic when his spinal cord was severed by shrapnel in Vietnam, "couldn't cough by himself" and relied on others "to press on his diaphragm to help him," his daughter Tina recalls.
The Santa Fe veteran also suffered bouts of pneumonia "due to his war injury. The paralysis affected his lungs," she says.
So when the former Marine succumbed at age 56 to pneumonia in 1994 - nearly 25 years after he was wounded - his children asked to have his name added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. After all, his death certificate said his passing was directly attributable to his spinal cord injury, which he suffered in combat.
The military turned down the request.
"We said, "How can you say that?' " says Tina Valdez, whose mother died three months after her father. "We kept pushing and pushing and it was denial, denial, denial."
On Monday, the family's 14-year battle will end when the name of Gunnery Sgt. Enrique Valdez is read aloud at the memorial in Washington during a Memorial Day ceremony. At that moment, the Marine officially will become a casualty of the Vietnam War.
Valdez' name was added to the black granite memorial on May 5. He is on Panel 17W, Row 51, near more than three dozen others killed Aug. 26, 1969, the day he was wounded. His is the 58,261st name chiseled into memorial and the 322nd added since it was dedicated in 1982.
Many of those added in recent years were paralyzed survivors like Valdez or amputees who died prematurely because of war-related complications, says Jan Scruggs, president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. "I'm glad it happened" for Valdez, he says. "Things that really matter to us in life take time and this is one of those things."
Paralyzed at 32
Valdez had done several tours in Vietnam when his 14-year career was abruptly cut short by shrapnel while serving with B Company, First Battalion of the First Marine Division. The 32-year-old was airlifted back to his wife and four children in New Mexico. Although he was rated 100 percent disabled, Tina Valdez says her father took his children camping and taught them to fish.
"My father was never bitter or angry about what had happened," she says. "He didn't feel sorry for himself and didn't allow anyone else to feel sorry for him. He was just happy to be alive."
After Valdez died, two military boards reviewed his case to be added to The Wall. In 1997, the Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery "found no direct causal relationship" between the veteran's fatal pneumonia and his combat-linked quadriplegia, according to a statement by Gerald Castle, head of the Marine Corps' Casualty Assistance Section, which agreed. The family appealed to legislators and kept reapplying. "Every time we sent something in, they asked for more information" before ruling again that he did not meet the criteria for inclusion, Tina Valdez says.
The family enlisted the help of former Marines, including Robert Johnston, a retired three-star general. He was a newly commissioned 2nd lieutenant in 1962 when he met Valdez, then a platoon sergeant, in Hawaii.
"He had a strikingly tough, calm disposition - a real troop leader of the highest order," Johnston recalls. "He was just as good as you get."
Persistence pays off
When Johnston heard that Valdez' application had been denied, "I said, "This is wrong. You have to revisit this thing,' " and wrote a letter to officials. After what Johnston calls "a little bit of pushing and shoving" by him, the family and a persistent casualty assistance officer at Marine Corps headquarters, the military reversed its ruling.
Castle said the application was reconsidered in 2006 and although the Navy medical board's "opinion was unchanged," the Marine Corps panel "determined the case to be sufficiently compelling" and overruled the original decision. Marine Corps spokesman Bryan Driver said no other details would be released.
The approval came on May 1, 2008 - too late to be included in last year's ceremony.
Being on the memorial "would have been a fulfillment of his professional life as a Marine," Johnston says. "It acknowledges that he had given everything he could to his country."
Tina Valdez, who was 4 when her father was wounded and mostly remembers him in a wheelchair, says he never saw the memorial in person. A cross-country trip, she says, was "too long a drive" for him to make.
Earlier this month, the Valdez siblings - Enrique, Yolanda, Lyndora and Tina - watched as a stoneworker engraved their father's name.
"It was very, very emotional and kind of a relief," Tina Valdez says. "He deserved to be there."