Forty-seven years ago, two young men from Texas met at a canteen in Vietnam.
The two Army soldiers, Francisco Barrientes, 20, and Juan Pequeño, 19, had just arrived in the war-torn country in 1969. They were in the middle of being processed when they met, becoming fast friends as they waited to find out where in the country they would be stationed.
One day, over the course of a beer, the two young men made a promise to one another: if one them makes it out alive, he would lay flowers at the other’s gravesite.
Barrientes, who was left critically disabled by the war when he took an AK-47 gunshot to his face and lost his esophagus and left vocal cords, came to Gilroy over the July Fourth weekend to fulfill that promise and pay tribute to his brother in arms, who died in battle just weeks after the two first met.
“I knew I had to do this,” said Barrientes, dressed in full uniform, standing next to the gravesite of Cpl. Juan Pequeño, 6/10/49-2/14/69, on July 1 at Gavilan Memorial Park on First Street. “I can’t let time go by anymore.”
He said that every February he remembers the young man, who before volunteering to serve in the military, liked to play baseball.
“So many did not make it back,” said Barrientes, who spent seven years in a military hospital and underwent 50 operations after being injured twice in Vietnam, the second leaving him disfigured and unable to eat normally.
During his pilgrimage to Gilroy, Barrientes had to stop every three hours to prepare a special drink, his only nourishment over the past 40-plus years.
Barrientes would go on to receive two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for his service, then marry, raising three children as he devoted his civilian life to community service.
After 30 years of volunteering at his local school district in Edinburg, Texas, Barrientes would have a middle school named after him.
Barrientes, standing at the grave next to Pequeño’s brother, David, laid down a bright, floral bouquet in red, yellow and green, the colors of Vietnam.
Born into a military family, Pequeño, was the son of a WWII veteran and sibling to two other brothers who also served.
Youngest brother David, who was stationed in Korea for a time while he was in the Army, was only 11 or 12 when his brother died.
“It was hard on our mom,” he said stoically at the gravesite. He pointed out his sister’s final resting place at his brother’s side.
Not fully knowing how to process the surprising appearance of Barrientes, the story of a promise made over beers while war raged on a foreign battlefield 47 years ago, he said he wished Barrientes had gotten in contact earlier, that maybe they could have had a relationship.
For now, the two former soldiers stand together, eyes cast downward, each remembering a young man whose life was cut short while serving his country.