Vietnam veterans reunited after more than 40 years

CNJ staff photo: Liliana Castillo Carlton Zarling Jr., left, and Clovis resident Romeo Sierra reunited after serving together in Vietnam 43 years ago.

Liliana Castillo

Clovis resident Romeo Sierra thought Carlton Zarling Jr. died in a helicopter explosion in Vietnam in April 1967.

That was until he was the voice on the other end of a phone call.

The two served together in Vietnam from January 1967 through the crash in April. Sierra, 63, was in the Marines for eight years and Zarling, 62, was a Navy medic who worked with the Marine Corps. He spent almost four years in the Navy.

Zarling found Sierra through another friend who went on the Internet looking for him in Lubbock. He started calling all the Sierras in the phone book and found Sierra’s brother. But then Zarling couldn’t get Sierra on the phone. They left a message.

“I didn’t know who it could be. When I called and it was him, I couldn’t believe it. I said ‘I thought you were dead,’” Sierra said.

The two said they saved each other’s lives in the accident. Zarling was loading a wounded soldier onto the helicopter when a 250-pound bomb that had been buried underground was remotely detonated. Zarling caught most of the blast, suffering two skull fractures among a long list of physical trauma. When Sierra woke up, he saw that Zarling wasn’t moving so he started to shake him. Zarling saved Sierra from the blast and Sierra shook Zarling awake before a coma could set in.

The two were medically evacuated to separate hospitals. That’s why Sierra thought Zarling had died.

After they found each other over two years ago, they had planned to meet up with another member of their company, Frank Gonzalez, and the three were going to search for another Marine, Albert Curley’s grave, in Gallup. However, Gonzalez began treatment for cancer in California and couldn’t come to the reunion.

It took them two years but Sierra and Zarling spent half a week together in Clovis the first week of November.

“I was happy to hear him. It’s great,” Sierra said. “Talking about old times, the good times.”

Zarling also made a trip from his home in Hillsboro, Wisc., to Hawaii to visit another man he’d served with.

“You know these guys in a kind of defining moment in your life,” Zarling said. “What Romeo and I went through — only we really understand. I can tell someone else but it’s not the same.”

Sierra said there’s a reason why they lived.

“It helps me to deal better with surviving when I see him. I don’t know why but there was a reason why we lived,” he said. I don’t know why it happened.”

The two couldn’t go in search of their friend’s grave but Zarling is going to continue to search from afar. He said he can’t find record of Curley, who was Navajo.