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Fallen Vietnam soldiers honored at memorial

By Camille Doty
July 18, 2012 at 2:18 a.m.

The cafeteria of Myatt Elementary School in El Campo was standing room only Saturday morning for a ceremony honoring Vietnam War veterans that began with the posting of the colors from Wharton honor guard members. Twenty-two Wharton County veterans who died in Vietnam were honored at the ceremony.

EL CAMPO - Tom Banda was fighting in the Vietnam trenches when he heard over the radio his best friend had been shot.

The former E-5 Specialist rushed to rescue Refugio "Cookie" Canales, but it was too late. Banda carried his friend's lifeless body on Nov. 2, 1968, a day he will never forget.

"I lost part of me when he died," Banda said Saturday. Canales was 21 years old.

The 65-year-old Houston resident painted a picture of humanity, while sharing war tales and jokes about this friend on Saturday.

Canales was one of 22 Wharton County soldiers killed in Vietnam who were honored Saturday at the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall memorial service.

The family and friends of each soldier were presented an eagle-shaped figurine in their honor.

The ceremony was part of the almost weeklong visit of the Vietnam Memorial Traveling Wall to El Campo.

Community volunteers put in sweat equity preparing for the traveling wall, which contains the 58,272 names of the American men and women who died in Southeast Asia.

Five months of preparation was almost washed away in two days of rain. The original grounds were too wet to hold the granite replica. So they blocked off the street for the wall. Blossom Meyer Drive was lined with roses and flags along the wall of ebony.

The ceremony was moved inside the Myatt Elementary School because of the conditions. About 400 people packed the school cafeteria to honor the soldiers.

The deceased soldiers came alive through stories told by friends, former soldiers and family.

Even with moments of laughter, the room became wet with tears. The song "Letters from War" was played with the guitar and an untitled poem by Lisa Dornak Bullen moved even the toughest soldier standing at attention.

Memorial organizers hope the gathering was therapeutic.

"This wall is taking the first step to start the healing process of something that happened 50 years ago," said Greg Welsh, Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall Manager.

The sense of camaraderie helped to soothe Frances Kyle's soul.

"Everyone who walks in this room is here because they want to be," she said, looking down her front row seat.

The 55-year-old El Campo resident was 12 years old when her brother, Staff Sgt. Howe King Clark Jr., was killed in combat.

A telegram came to Kyle's home stating her brother was MIA, two days later he was declared dead. It left the family and the community devastated. The details surrounding his death are still unknown.

"He wasn't just my big brother but my hero," she said. Because of Clark's contributions, he earned three Purple Hearts, a bronze star and a silver star.

Although her blue eyes fought back tears for her brother, she couldn't help but think of others who suffered the same fate.

"Each name on the wall has a story to tell," she said.

Before the tribute, Vietnam veteran Ricardo Castillo rubbed his fingers over the names etched in granite.

He placed flowers by names of his friends lost in combat.

Castillo was 29 when he enlisted in the military because of his pride and the injustice he witnessed chipped away at it.

Castillo said two friends of African-American descent were not allowed to be buried in the local cemetery because of the color of their skin. He's on a quest to visit their place of rest.

After fighting on the front lines in the 101 Airborne Division, the father of three faced different battles.

"I forgot about the racism. It was all about being invisible," he said.

Castillo and others were encouraged to put their uniforms away. The Vietnam hat he wore served as his battle scar. He didn't want people to forget.

After years of nightmares, the 72-year-old learned to function through his pain.

Spectators thanked him for this service, but he diverted the attention away from himself.

"These are the ones you need to thank," he said as he pointed to the wall.

Castillo said it's never too late to express gratitude.

"It's been a long time but I'm glad they're finally recognized," he said.

Banda kept his friend's memory alive by visiting his grave four times a year. Saturday was his first time to celebrate him publicly.

Canales was a practical joker and loyal friend. One day he and Banda stole a ham for the barracks. Everyone lived high on the hog for one night, but the victory was short-lived.

A commanding officer found out about the impropriety and demanded Canales tell the truth. He responded in silence.

"It would have killed him to tell on anyone," Banda said.

For a punishment, Canales had to scrub a grease pit that towered over him. He stood 5-feet-2-inches tall.

Bonds between this crew could not be broken, everyone suffered in silence. The unit had to trudge through the freezing rain while trying to alligator crawl in their undergarments.

It was one of the last, living memories he has of Canales.

Banda said it took him 22 years to contact the Canales family and he was immediately welcomed by them.

"When I see him (Banda) I see my uncle. I can see why the two of them are friends," shared Elloy Canales, his friend's nephew. Being able to connect gave closure to Banda and the family.

"They lost a son, uncle, nephew I lost my best friend," said Banda.

The grandfather of four presented the Canales family with an autographed flag with other Vietnam soldiers for their beloved Canales.

It was easy for Banda to pass on the memorabilia to the family because he holds Canales in a special place.

"I'll never forget him because he lives with me," he said.

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