By Daniel Silliman
Once, he just wanted to forget the war. Now, Larry Sanchez is working to build a memorial.
When Sanchez left Vietnam in 1969, after three years commanding a company of airborne infantry, he was given a little card. Everyone was given one, he said, this little card that warned you not to wear your uniform in public, because of the anti-war sentiment, because soldiers were scorned by the public.
"It was like someone hit me in the stomach. I could not believe that. After all the sacrifices, hardships, deaths and casualties, we weren't supposed to wear our uniforms in public in the USA. It was devastating," Sanchez said.
The first time he came home, on leave, the young company commander was paraded like a hero around his home town in Southern California. He met with the police association, the firemen's association, and spent a whole day with the mayor.
A couple years later, though, no one wanted to know, no one wanted to see Sanchez and the returning veterans as heroes.
"I never talked about the war or what I did in the war," Sanchez said. "I never told my kids anything about the war. Except for a few amusing situations, I have not talked about my war experiences, not even with my wife of 38 years ... I wanted to forget the war and I did forget the war."
All that changed a couple of years ago, though, when Sanchez got a phone call about a memorial. Now, the 70-year-old College Park man is vice president of the 173d Airborne Brigade National Memorial Foundation, working to build a memorial to the fallen men in his brigade.
When first asked why he was working to build this memorial, Sanchez explained it as an echo of the original call to duty. "They needed my help," he said. But then the answer was more urgent, more personal: "I know I have to do it. I have to get this memorial built."
He didn't say why, right away, but instead started talking about a battle in the Iron Triangle. Gen. William Westmoreland sent the 173rd Airborne Brigade into the area, where the North Vietnamese couldn't seem to be shaken from their stronghold. When the soldiers finally beat back the defenses, Sanchez said, they discovered tunnels. The North Vietnamese had an elaborate complex of tunnels they were using to stage attacks. Sanchez, the company commander, asked for a volunteer to crawl down into the tunnels to see what was there.
All 200 of his men volunteered.
"Every time I asked for volunteers, all 200 of my men would raise their hands," he said. "Soldiers were drafted, back then, but the 173rd, the Sky Soldiers, were all volunteers. They were elite."
Sanchez chose his smallest soldier, to crawl down that hole, a young man from Idaho. The man found a whole "flow of tunnels," stocked with medical supplies, weapons, ammunition and food. He reported back, but then asked to go down again.
"I said, yes," Sanchez recalled. "I let him go back in, and he didn't come back out. He didn't come back out. He suffocated in their. I gave him my OK. He got stuck while looking into a small room. He could not get out. The more he tried to move, the more his body swelled up ...
When we found him, he had already died of suffocation."
The man, that soldier from Idaho, was one of 27 who died under Sanchez's command. Sometimes, he said, he still dreams about those men.
"I remember one boy," he said. "We were loading him on a helicopter and he said, 'Don't let them take me out. Don't let them evacuate me. I want to stay with my buddies.' I knew he was dying. The medics knew he was going to die, but he didn't want to leave his buddies. Those were the kind of men they were."
And those were the kind of men he couldn't turn down, when they asked him to volunteer to help with this memorial.
"It's because of the 27," he said. "I'm doing it for the families of the 27 young men."
There was a total of 1,734 men, soldiers with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, who lost their lives in Vietnam. Sanchez is working to build them a monument. The non-profit group has already broken ground for the monument in Columbus, Ga., outside Ft. Benning, but they're still raising the $650,000 needed for the memorial.
"We're trying to build a place where the families can go," Sanchez said. "During the war, we assumed that when we sent the bodies home that everything was taken care of, and it's not. As a company commander, I wanted to feel like, OK, everything is taken care of, but it wasn't ... This will give the families a place to go, where they can meditate or pray, or do whatever they need to do to find closure. This gives them closure, and it tells them someone's taking care of their son."
To contribute to the 173d Airborne Brigade National Memorial Foundation, visit www.173dairbornememorial.org, or write, 173d Airborne Brigade National Memorial Foundation, Attn: Ken Smith, 1160 Lake Royale, Louisburg, N.C., 27549.