Câu chuyện thương tâm của gia đình người lính Mỹ hy sinh trong trận Mậu Thân

Người lính 18 tuổi Jerry Cervantes

Vietnam vet Armando Rubalcaba of Capitola, and Martha Cervantes

San Jose, California

Nhân ngày chiến sỹ trận vong tờ San Jose Mercury News có đăng câu chuyện thương tâm của người vợ trẻ đang lâm bồn nghe tin người chồng tử trận vào ngày mồng hai Tết năm Mậu Thân 1968.

Tưởng đã hơn 43 năm nhưng câu chuyện vẫn như xảy ra ngày hôm qua cho bà Martha Cervantes, năm nay đã 60 tuổi.

Vietnam soldier’s widow still dreams of what could have been

Julia Prodis Sulek
Posted: 05/29/2011 09:29:01 PM PDT
Updated: 05/30/2011 12:09:40 AM PDT

The call came out of the blue, from a voice she didn’t recognize and a name that was only faintly familiar. But within minutes, they were both crying.
Armando Rubalcaba, a Vietnam veteran, had sought out the widow of his old Lincoln High School buddy, who was killed fighting in 1968. He had a story to tell Martha Cervantes, but he was so overcome with emotion, he could barely relay the details. So he left her with two things: a promise to meet her Memorial Day weekend at her husband’s grave and a simple explanation for his call — that even 43 years later, Jerry Cervantes is not forgotten.
Many families are celebrating the Memorial Day holiday with picnics and beach trips. For those like Rubalcaba who lost friends or family serving their country, it’s a day to honor their sacrifice. But for Martha Cervantes, like it is every Memorial Day, it’s a time to imagine what might have been if only he had come home.
“I used to go to the cemetery and cry and say, ‘Why did you leave me?'” Cervantes said. “I’ve suffered a lot. Things would have been better.”
What Rubalcaba has come to find out, in that phone call and at the Oak Hill cemetery in San Jose on Sunday, is that the memory of his fallen comrade lives vividly in the thoughts and dreams of the 60-year-old widow.
Martha Cervantes was just 16 and three months pregnant with a son when her 18-year-old husband died. She never remarried after she lost her “one true love,” she said.

“I’ve always had him in my heart.”
A widow’s hardships
She met Cervantes when she was just 14. She was leaving the Jose Theater on First Street in downtown San Jose with her sister when he cruised by slowly with a buddy in a white Thunderbird. A young, dark-haired boy with a huge smile hung out the window then joined her on the sidewalk.
“He was very polite. I loved his smile,” she said, sitting on the couch of her small apartment near downtown.
But her father said they were too young and forbid them to date. So the couple would meet secretly at Columbus Park on West Taylor Street, holding hands.
At Lincoln High, Cervantes was one of about seven classmates, including Armando Rubalcaba, who joined the service within a year after their 1967 graduation. When Cervantes returned on leave after basic training, he proposed. When they married at St. Leo’s church Aug. 18, 1967, Cervantes, who had already earned the rank of sergeant, promised his bride a good life.
The day he boarded a flight to Vietnam was the day she found out she was pregnant. The young couple had been married only six months, and he had been in Vietnam for only three, when he was killed in battle Feb. 29, 1968. He was gunned down in Thua Thien in South Vietnam, dying in the province that suffered the heaviest U.S. casualties. Rubalcaba, just 18 himself, went to the funeral.
Over the years, Martha Cervantes would have other relationships and three more children, but the memory of her first love was always present. She never went to high school but still found jobs working in catering trucks and cafeterias. The decades were fraught with one trauma and devastation after another, from being beaten by a boyfriend, to a house fire that burned her wedding photos, to an eviction that left her homeless and sleeping in a laundromat with her children. Her wedding ring was stolen.
“I’ve had to start from the bottom too many times,” she said.
Still, she dreams of the young man with the broad smile, that he’s alive, but living with a new wife and children in Vietnam. “I dream of him being the same age as when we were younger, and he doesn’t remember me, that he comes back and we’re trying to get to know each other, we try to be together as a family.”
She met Rubalcaba at the cemetery on Sunday, the day that would have been her husband’s 62nd birthday.

Fulfilling a promise
The retired mail carrier who lives in Capitola brought with him photos of a trip he took two years ago to Vietnam, a trip as much to fulfill a vow he made to himself when he left Vietnam in 1972 as to honor Cervantes and another Lincoln High grad, Jack Carter, who also was killed. In the turbulent 1960s, Vietnam veterans didn’t get the respect that soldiers of other wars did.
In his own way, Rubalcaba wanted to pay his respects to his friends. He wasn’t with them when they died, but after researching their places of death, he made a pilgrimage by plane, train, motorcycle and taxi to the remote areas. With him he carried copies he had made of their dog tags and nailed them to trees close to where they died. Then he stood back and saluted. On the tags, he inscribed the words, “Brother, you’re not forgotten.”
At the cemetery, they each brought flowers to place on the flat granite headstone. Rubalcaba’s were red, white and blue. Cervantes brought with her silk daisies. They were her husband’s favorite flowers, she said, the same kind he used to pick for her from the edge of Columbus Park. Those were the days when they had nothing but hope and promise ahead.

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