The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

December 2003
FEATURE
   
 

The Men Who Served With My Father

BY KAREN ZACHARIAS


I recognized Pablo Gallegos' signature long before I recognized his face. I'd read it
innumerable times as I rifled through my father's personnel file. Gallegos' name was
scribbled on the Statement of Recognition. His signature confirmed that the lifeless body before him was indeed that of Staff Sgt. David Paul Spears, my father. It was dated July 24, 1966. Pablo remembers that day better than he cares to.

Like my father, Gallegos served with the 25th Infantry Division, 3rd Brigade, 2nd
Battalion, 9th Artillery. The unit was shipped to Vietnam in December 1965. My father, 35, was Chief of Smoke for Bravo Battery. Gallegos, 19, was a medic with Headquarters Battery. He worked in Pleiku with the 106th MedVac Hospital. Often he was in the field, less than a mile away from where the infantry and artillery were based. That day the company was in the Ia Drang Valley.

A mortar round exploded outside my father's tent at 5:30 a.m. Fiery shrapnel pierced my father's back, nicked his lung, and pushed his gut through an exit wound. He cried for help. The guys in the field did the best they could but the evacuation helicopter was grounded by bad weather. It would be 10:00 a.m. or later before a Medevac was sent in to retrieve my father. By then, all his life's blood had bled out. Without dog tags to identify this soldier, the morgue folks searched for an eyewitness who knew this Sergeant, this father of three, this husband of one.

"They had me come over to identify him," Pablo Gallegos recalled. "I remember
someone there, in the field morgue, asking me, 'Do you recognize this man? Do you
know who he is?' ''

"Yeah,'' he answered. "I know him."

"Are you sure it's Sgt. Spears?" the voice asked again.

"Yeah, I'm sure," Gallegos replied.

My father's death haunts Pablo Gallegos. He cannot tell this story without shedding
sorrowful tears. Since that day, he has done constructive things with his life. He married, fathered five children, and served 30 years with the U.S. Postal Service. When the opportunity arose, he took time to visit the Moving Wall and honor fallen warriors. He wondered about the families left behind.

"It's been on my mind for the past 37 years," Pablo said.

Five years ago, Gallegos joined the Run for the Wall. Participants strive to promote
healing among Vietnam veterans, families, and friends by honoring the memory of those killed in action and calling for a full accounting of those still missing in action. Every year before Memorial Day, members journey via motorcycle from the West Coast to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

Gallegos has never made the entire trip. This year he traveled as far as Cimarron, New Mexico, a 2,000-mile roundtrip from his home in Colton, California. Shortly before he set out on the trail in May 2003, he found me - Sgt. Spears' daughter.

I'd been searching for the men who had served alongside my father. I only had a few
names. Sgt. Erwin Naylor and Sgt. Claude Colley were two of my father's good friends. Colley was from Alabama and Naylor was from the Carolinas. In 1996, I discovered that both men had died of cancer, believed to be the result of Agent Orange exposure. In 2001, I tracked down John Osborne, one of my father's commanding officers, in Kentucky. He had never heard of Pablo Gallegos. Later, I found a roster of the men who served in Bravo Company. Pablo Gallegos' name wasn't on it. I couldn't figure out who this man was or how he came to be the one who identified my deceased father by his facial features.

In November 2002, I made my first trip to The Wall. I took with me a picture of
my father, posed before Vietnam's Dragon Mountain. I wore that picture around my neck hoping to find anyone who might have served with my father.

Lots of veterans approached me. None of them knew Dad. I returned home convinced that the only man who still remembered my father was Capt. John Osborne. But as he put it, "That was another life ago."

Perhaps for some, but not for the sons and daughters who continue to miss our fathers. Pablo Gallegos was unaware I was looking for him when he came in search of me. We both believe God brought our paths together. On May 1, Gallegos was surfing the web. He intended to check out the route for the Run for the Wall. But when he initiated the search engine, The Virtual Wall www.virtualwall.org popped up. He typed in Sgt. Spears' name. A memorial page appeared. On it were several tributes to my father and a contact number.

Gallegos wrote the number down and looked at the clock. It was midnight.

He told his wife, Marie, that he'd found Sgt. Spears' daughter. He asked her, "Do you
think I should call her? What if she thinks I'm some kind of fool? What should I do?"

"Call her,'' his wife said. "But wait until morning.''

Gallegos tossed and turned all night long. "I kept waking up, checking my watch. It was too early to call. I was very nervous, scared. I couldn't believe I'd found you after 37 years," he said.

Mostly, he was worried how I would react.

"I was worried you'd think I was some quack. I was scared about how this would affect you," Gallegos told me. "I wondered if you had put this all behind you. If you had gone on with your life. Some people put it behind them and never want to talk about it again. I didn't want to open up old wounds for you."

Even so, he felt like he was going to burst inside if he didn't make the call. "I needed to make the call for me. For the satisfaction of knowing what happened to Sgt. Spears' family. This was the opportunity to share my memory of Sgt. Spears with someone." Gallegos was willing to risk that maybe I wouldn't want to talk about my dad. The phone rang around 8:00 a.m. on May 2. The man on the other end asked to speak to Karen Spears.

"I'm sorry," he said, unable to speak for his tears.

"I'm Pablo," he said.

"Pablo Gallegos?" I uttered, dumbfounded.

"Yes,'' he said. "I knew your father.''

"I know,'' I said. "I've been looking for you.''

Since then, several other men who served with my father have contacted me. Doug
Johnson of Nebraska found me the same way Gallegos did. Johnson served as the
assistant gunner under Sgt. Spears. His first correspondence showed up in my e-mail box on May 3, 2003 - the day after Gallegos' first phone call. Doug Johnson didn't know Gallegos and was unaware that I had been searching for him.

"I've been wondering about Sgt. Spears' children for a long time. I was with him in
Vietnam in the same gun section. He was quite the guy. When we did something it was done the best. Our gun pit was the sharpest. Our personal bunker the best," Doug Johnson wrote. He knew the names of the other men in the photo I had of my father.

"The people in the picture are Andrew V. Melick, Jr., from California and Dave B.
McIntyre from New York," he said. "I never in my wildest dream ever thought I would
get in contact with any of Sgt. Spears' children."

Another veteran, Sgt. Lloyd McClean of Florida, contacted me after reading an article I wrote for the 25th Infantry Division Association newsletter about a trip I made in March with Sons and Daughters in Touch to Vietnam. McClean, Chief of Smoke for Charlie Company, served alongside my father at Oahu's Schofield barracks. They received their orders to Vietnam at the same time. Lloyd McClean served five months of his tour when he was rendered deaf by a mortar blast. He learned of my father's death while working as the plant supervisor at the Army's meat packing plant in Ft. Sill, Oklahoma.

"There were some guys who'd just shipped in from Vietnam. They were standing around kidding me, asking me how did I like my new easy life. I asked them, Hey boys, what happened after I left? Did you lose anybody?' They said, 'Yes, we lost Sgt. Spears.' I was shocked. He used to come over to my gun section, and we'd drink a cup of coffee. Or we'd go to the gun shed and visit while we let the gunner run the gun for us."

Lloyd McClean knew Sgt. Spears left behind a widow and three children.

"You were a little girl when your daddy died. I'm sure it was hard for you to get over. I
know it must've been. I want you to know your Daddy was a good guy. He did his job
well. He worked hard and trained his men right. He did what his country asked him to
do," Lloyd McClean said.

Pablo Gallegos and I finally met face-to-face on August 1 at the Southern California
Chapter of Sons and Daughters in Touch campout. I'd called him and asked a special
favor. My husband, Tim, and I wanted to renew our wedding vows. We'd arranged to do this with the help of our SDIT friends.

"Would you be willing to come and give me away at the ceremony?" I asked.

"I'd be honored," he said.

Jeanette Chervony of California officiated the ceremony at Hurley Creek State Park.
Terry McGregor of California stood up for my husband and Patty Lee of California and
Kathy Webb of Texas served as my matrons of honor.

As a crowd of onlookers watched, Pablo Gallegos, wearing his black leather Run for the Wall vest with the Tropic Lightning patch, walked me over a path strewn with pine
needles. Tim stood near a wooden stage decorated with toilet paper, smiling.

We both laughed. It was a comfortable, hearty laughter. The kind common among friends who've shared deep sorrows and great joys.

Karen Spears Zacharias is the author of the forthcoming Hero Mama: After the
Flag's folded. She can be reached by e-mail at zach@uci.net

   

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