New Mexico resident, Ernest Garcia, is a proud Vietnam Veteran, and he has made it his mission to honor and pay tribute to his fellow Vietnam Veterans—his brothers in arms.
We meet at the Copper Canyon, an Albuquerque diner favored by airmen from Kirtland, visitors to the VA Medical Center and local businessmen. During our lunch, Ernest suddenly excuses himself, walks up to a man eating at a nearby table, and says “Welcome home, brother.”
He doesn’t know the man, but immediately identifies with him, because he is wearing a cap with an Army patch on it. Veterans from all eras can identify with other Veterans because they share some common experiences—but Vietnam Veterans, especially, share mutual respect for each other that they did not receive from the majority of the American public.
It is not uncommon for a Vietnam Veteran to seek out another Vet and strike up a conversation. But get two Vietnam Vets together and the conversation immediately revolves around the units they were in, their MOS (military occupation specialty), and their years served in combat.
For example, Ernest explains, “I was a door gunner—and we door gunners always find each other—mostly because of the flight wings we wear on our chest.” He indicates a patch on his vest. “We had a saying, ‘after flying door gunner, what’s left for us to do?’”
I look at him blankly. He continues, “Because helicopter door gunners, crew chiefs and pilots had a life expectancy of 30 minutes after take off into a mission. And I flew so many missions, I can’t remember exactly how many—but I definitely exceeded my life expectancy.”
After lunch, Ernest takes me to his truck where he shows me a small bamboo cage he has built. When I ask him what it’s all about, he explains,
“The cage is a small version of the cages our prisoners of war (POWs) were caged in during captivity. I set a goal to build this cage as a means to find closure from the pain I carry from [my own PTSD] and in their honor—mostly to honor them. My goal is to bring to the attention of the public what these brave men had to endure for their country and the blood was shed for us!”
I look closer, and I notice a bowl of dried rice, a small carpet…and a couple of flags, neatly folded…I ask Ernest about them.
“Everything in this cage is symbolic and a tribute to our POWs/MIAs. (Missing in Action) That’s why I’ve included the US flag and a POW/MIA flag. The red carpet symbolizes the blood that was shed for us and the small bowl of rice is what they were fed.”
A lot of thought has gone into this …replica…this model…Where does he display something like this?
Ernest says, “Any and all Veteran’s Memorials in the area. I want to have the public see what they endured.”
Has there been any reaction from the public?
“Yes, I had it on display on Veteran’s Day at the Rio Rancho Veteran’s Memorial and had a lot of positive feedback and questions from the public.”
“Aside from asking what does the cage represent, and did people really endure captivity in cages, I have also been asked if I am going to display it elsewhere. And I tell them, yes, any where I can—and sometimes people ask to borrow it to take to an out-of-state Veterans reunion as well.”
As we part ways, Ernest says to me, “Remember this: A Veteran, whether Active Duty, Retired, National Guard or Reserve, is someone who, at one point in his or her life, wrote a blank check made payable to the ‘United States of America’ for an amount of ‘up to and including my life!’”
Although the author of that quote is unknown, its message is clear and well-known. Our service members, having made a pact with Uncle Sam, will defend this country to the end—whatever it takes.
I get into the car, thinking of my own son who will soon be deploying to Afghanistan, and I shiver.