The Recollection of Maria Elena Renteria
Profilers: Group 4 (TBD)
Introduction: First Recollections of the War
Can you introduce yourself and some of the recollections you have of the Vietnam War?
My name is Maria Elena Renteria. I am 75 years old. My first recollection of the Vietnam War was in 1962–1963. I must have been about 14–15 years old and a freshman or a sophomore. I went to… I was going to school, and then I got home and listened to these news broadcasts about this war, and I thought it was a faraway war. I thought it wasn’t going to affect us, but indeed, it was already starting to affect us. The term was new to me. Vietnam. I didn’t know what that was, and it wasn’t until I got to high school that I understood it.
In 1963 to 1964, I was a sophomore or a junior, and that year I remember draft cards. All of a sudden, the draft cards were really a topic of discussion. Young men were getting their draft cards. A “draft card” was a card that indicated you had to fill it out and then send it back to the government, and they would categorize you. One of the categories was ‘A,’ and ‘A’ meant that you were eligible for the draft. You were eligible to be taken to war, and so a lot of them in high school were getting those. Some of them were tearing them up. Some of them were burning them. Some of the young men were also going to war, and it was a very difficult time. The young men who got these cards were usually seniors because they were about to turn 18. Most of them in El Rancho were white men, so they got their cards. I don’t know about minorities or anything, but I know that all of the kids were white. When we graduated, I remember that some of the young boys that were in our year went to Vietnam. About a year or two later, they were killed, and all of a sudden, that time frame became very important to me because I began to understand what Vietnam was and what influence it had on the United States.
I guess I was naive and I thought, “Oh, they’ll be back in two years, they’ll be back in three years.” So I didn’t—at that point, they hadn’t been dying. So it was okay; they’ll be back. Two years later, they weren’t coming back. Some of them either came back injured or some of them came back in coffins. It became sad because, as you know, every day you hear about someone who died, someone who was wounded, or someone who got injured.
I knew of this boy named Reggie, and I had always admired him. He’s a good guy, and he was very nice. He was called to go to war, and so after the war, I heard that he had passed away; that was the first death that I had heard of. I remember that, for about a week, I was very sad. I couldn’t believe that he had just graduated, gone to war, and then died. It was harder for me. Then after that, more and more men that I had gone to school with in high school were beginning to die.
Memorialization: The Story of Guillermo Parisi
Did your school have a memorial wall?
El Rancho High School has a memorial wall with the names of all the young men who died in Vietnam. It was a periodical memorial for them because they were so young; they hadn’t reached age 21 yet and they were sent to war.
I want to tell you a story about my distant cousin, Guillermo Parisi. He went joyriding one night with his friends from East Los Angeles, and they went joyriding in that area. He got caught, and he and the others got caught, and they haven’t appeared before a judge. They haven’t appeared in court. When he went to his arraignment, he learned that he was given two options, and they weren’t really options; it was an ultimatum. It was “enlist in the service or go to jail.”. He didn’t know what to do, so he said, “You know, I want you all to go outside and discuss it with your families.” It’s a life-changing situation, so come back and tell me what you want to do. So they did. When they were out there, he realized that his mother emphatically did not want him to go to jail and wanted him to take the option to join the service because jail meant a criminal record and he would come back to that. So, he goes back into court and says that he wants to go to Vietnam. Specifically, to go to the Marine Corps. So if the judge says fine, we’ll send you to the Marine Corps. There was someone there, I think, and they started the process for him.
He opted for reality, which would later be his death sentence. He died in June 1969, two to four weeks before he was released from his tour. He had completed it. He died in Quang Tri Province during Operation Virginia Ridge. His CO was Oliver North for the Third Battalion and Third Marines. I knew all the young men were going to walk. I knew they were going away for two years minimum.But I didn’t know, and I guess I knew some of them were going to die. I never understood or knew that someone I was familiar with was going to die. I thought they were all coming home. And so when he passed away—when he died, it was such a shock. I remember standing there and my mom was telling us and thinking that he’s coming home in three weeks. We’re supposed to be throwing a party for him. And so it was very traumatizing for everyone who had heard that he had passed away.
What was their reaction?
Grief. Grief-stricken, of course. Especially the mother. She blamed herself because she was the one that insisted that he go to Vietnam. He had no choice, she thought, and so he was to pick the one choice that would keep him cleaner, and not get him into this cycle of going to jail off and on. She always blamed herself for his death. Then after that, we had the wake, which is the viewing before the burial, and so we went to the wake. Everybody went to the wake. At the wake, we had people who knew of him but didn’t know him, but were moved by the man in whom you died. It was really quiet, it was very solid. We said our prayers, we gave our condolences to the family. Everybody did that.
Then the next day we came to the church, where you do a ceremony—actually, a mass—and then you go to the cemetery. So at the cemetery, that was the most difficult death I have ever gone to. At the cemetery, we waited and waited; [we] waited for about a good half hour before the priest got out. I noticed a car go up in front of all the cars and park, and some people were getting out of the cars. I believe this was his best friend. They went into the service together. But they were taking so long.
And then all of a sudden, I saw two other men get off, and they were, like, from the military. They helped the friend out, and then his girlfriend came out, and they started walking towards the [crowd], but as they’re walking, I noticed that he is in a wheelchair–he’s not standing, he’s not walking–he’s in a wheelchair. So as they were coming through, I noticed that they kind of carried him, and I thought that was strange. [He was in] these casts or something, and they helped him out, and then they put him in a wheelchair. Then his girlfriend came out, and she walked by the wheelchair. So they’re coming towards us, and they’re coming slowly, and as they’re getting closer I noticed then that he has no arms. He had just gotten out of the hospital, and in fact, he had gotten out of the hospital [just] to go to the services.
So while he’s still coming through, because he has no legs, and they’re opposite [of him]. This is one arm on his right. He couldn’t stand, so they’re bringing him up, close and forward, and they get him close to the casket. He then signs to them to get him closer to the casket. And he put his arm on a casket, and everyone—– there was a dead silence, everything— just got really quiet.
And then he stood up. The best he could, and he saluted his friend. As he saluted, everyone was silent. Thinking of the horrible, horrible death he had to go through. And that was it. The rest of the service was very, very silent. Quiet. We finished, and everyone left.
When he finished saluting, he sat back on the chair, and they took him away. He didn’t stay. They took him away. Two weeks later, that couple got married. I don’t know what happened to that couple, or if they left, but she had promised to wait for him. And she did. She married [him].
If you can ask Guillermo–if you can talk to him one more time– if you can say anything to him, what would you say?
Hey, dude. We gotta go [up] to Yosemite. I’ve missed you. I really miss you. You were so much fun.