Healing difficult for Vietnam veteran

Tony Romero was working toward becoming a boxing champion when the Vietnam War led to his enlistment in the Marines. He spent 11 months in the jungles of Vietnam before being diagnosed with a case of malaria. (Staff photo: Andrew Chavez)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Editor’s note: The CNJ is publishing a monthly series profiling war veterans in the Clovis area.

The TV was turned down, an image of President Bush on the screen. The American flag loomed large behind the commander in chief as he defended the U.S. led war in Iraq.
Tony Romero sat with his back to the television.

Media coverage of the desert war, for Romero, dredges up unwanted images of the war he fought more than 30 years ago in the jungles of Vietnam. So do some movies and some social scenes, and some of the video games his grandchildren play, saturated with violence and gun-toting heroes.

“The military glorifies war. You’ve got soldiers who don’t want to go but they know they’ve gotta do what they’ve gotta do. And you’ve got soldiers that love war… I call them warmongers.”

Under his own classification system, Romero falls into the first category — a reluctant soldier. As a 19-year-old, all he wanted to do was win a world boxing title, and with a string of state wins under his belt, the future appeared bright for the Clovis featherweight. But a draft notice landed in his mailbox.

Romero, toned from a long series of fights, sloughed off the Army’s notice, volunteering instead to join the Marine Corps. He soon became a member of the Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, a company revered among soldiers as “The Walking Dead.”

Romero spent 11 months maneuvering through Vietnamese villages. Many, he said, were burnt to the ground when villagers refused to cooperate with the Marine unit; the company’s mission, to gain as much ground as possible. In the process, Romero, a weapons specialist, was injured — an arm and leg riddled with shrapnel from a grenade.

A fog settled over the jungle in those monsoon months, Romero said. After days of rain and heat, the fog grew so thick Romero couldn’t see his fingers in front of his face. But he trudged on with his company, despite his wounds, many times without food or clean drinking water, until they were flown out of the war-torn country to Okinawa, Japan, where Romero was diagnosed with a life-threatening case of malaria.

Romero empathizes with a new generation of soldiers.
“I feel for them,” Romero said, shifting a cup of water on his table, which seconds before he had used as a prop to demonstrate a hill in Vietnam captured by his company, only days later seized by the North Vietnamese.

The war in Iraq, Romero said, is like the war in Vietnam, “a war you can’t win.”

“Imagine your sister called you up and said, ‘I’m having problems with my husband,’ but she lived in Roswell. You would go down there and try to help, but because she lived so far away, you’d have to keep coming back. You wouldn’t be able to help the situation from so far away,” Romero said, rising from his recliner, relying on the analogy to define the complexities and parallels of the Iraq and Vietnam conflicts.

Romero often uses analogies to explain his political views, because for the ex-soldier, time has not healed the wounds of war. Vietnam, he said, is a “part of everything.”

“We go out to a restaurant and he has to sit with his back to the wall,” said his wife of 10 years, Rose. “So nobody can walk up behind him without him knowing. They,” veterans of Vietnam, “can open up — but they never heal from it. They went and they fought and they came back, but it is still in their minds and their dreams.”

The couple lives on an empty county road at the end of a winding dirt path, where patches of dry grass and cattle monopolize the scenery. Romero says he finds the quiet landscape soothing. Although he is an active member of the community, a volunteer boxing coach and a member of veterans associations, he describes himself as “unsociable.”

“I came back home and had lots of anger,” Romero said. “Everybody that died there, died in vain.”

“It’s human nature,” said Romero, fleshing out his war theory, his wife listening in silence, the president’s speech still soundless, “When two people don’t think alike one pushes the other… It’s only right that the powerful help the less powerful. I agree that we need to help, but it should be done without weapons of mass destruction — and I think of a rifle or a machine gun as a weapon of mass destruction.”

To suggest an honoree, contact CNJ Managing Editor Rick White at 763-6991 or by e-mail: rick_white@link.freedom.com