From Taos Pueblo to Ho Chi Minh trail

Robert Nott
rnott@sfnewmexican.com
Posted 11/10/19

Sam Martinez taught his grandson, John Romero, well.

Martinez wanted the boy to learn how to survive in the wilderness, so he often took him into the mountains surrounding Taos to hike, hunt, camp and learn how to use the sun and the moon to find his way home.

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From Taos Pueblo to Ho Chi Minh trail

Posted

Sam Martinez taught his grandson, John Romero, well.

Martinez wanted the boy to learn how to survive in the wilderness, so he often took him into the mountains surrounding Taos to hike, hunt, camp and learn how to use the sun and the moon to find his way home.

"He taught me how to deal with different environments, how to make and follow trails," says Romero, who served in the U.S. Army from 1968-72 and who now oversees veterans issues for Taos Pueblo.

That talent came in handy when an Army officer appointed Romero as point man for combat patrols near the Ho Chi Minh trail in the Central Highlands region of South Vietnam.

The unit's job: Find the North Vietnamese forces and stop them -- which is to say, kill them.

It wasn't easy. There was nothing easy there.

The Viet Cong knew how and where to hide. Romero, now 72, lost track of the days, weeks and months as he led his unit through rain-soaked jungles and rice paddies. He avoided leading his men on well-worn trails where ambushes and booby traps were likely. Instead, he made his own paths, which worked fine until a new lieutenant, fresh from West Point, ordered a six-man patrol led by Romero to take an established trail that pointed to danger.

About 200 yards in, the enemy struck. Everyone was hit, and some -- including the lieutenant, whose name is lost to history as far as Romero is concerned -- died.

Romero, who still bears a scar over his left eye where one bullet struck him, crawled to a wounded fellow soldier who also had a bullet wound to the head. It was his best friend, a man named Daniel Stevens.

"I held him," Romero recalls. "He couldn't talk. He was trying to talk with his eyes. They were saying 'Help me.' I couldn't. He died in my arms. To this day I cannot forget the look in those eyes."

Romero passed out, and when he awoke, he was in a field hospital. The next time he came to, he was in a military hospital in Hawaii. He never returned to Vietnam, serving out his four-year tour at Fort Hood, Texas.

By the time Romero had returned to New Mexico, he had seen a lot for a man of 25. It had been a whirlwind for a kid from Taos Pueblo, snagged by the draft in the summer of 1968.

Looking back, Romero says he wasn't frightened by the prospect of combat -- and in some ways, he has his Native roots to thank. He recalls his grandfather, the man who'd led him through the mountains near Taos, blessing him by making a protective pouch out of buckskin with tribal medicine tucked inside.

"Never take it off," Martinez told his grandson. "When it's time for you to come back, you're not going to have it anymore. It's gonna stay in Vietnam."

And it did: Romero says he lost the pouch somewhere between being wounded and recovering in the hospital in Hawaii.

He remembers being the only Native American in his unit. Some of the other soldiers -- "Hillbilly types raised in the hills," he says -- nicknamed him "Chief," a term he did not mind. Nor did he take offense when he was ordered to be point man because, as his commander told him, he was Native American.

Romero says he thinks his commanding officer truly believed he would be the best man for the job. And in some ways, the kid from Taos had a bond with those from the hills and backwaters of America's other rural areas: They were good fighting men who knew, as he did, how to hunt, track and shoot.

Prayer kept him alive, he says, "Not only for me, but for everybody, asking that the Great Spirit protect us."

He didn't like learning how to kill. After the first death he caused, he recalls thinking: Why are we killing each other?

During his time there, Romero says he learned to respect the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong as warriors. They knew how to move, how to hide, how to kill. He never came to hate them as some would.

"I never had that feeling," he says. "They were doing the same thing we were doing -- trying to survive."

He liked the South Vietnamese people he was fighting to protect and still recalls an old man in one of the villages who used his hands to communicate with Romero.

"He pointed at me, he pointed at himself, and I guess he was trying to tell me we were the same color," Romero says with a laugh. "All the other guys in the unit were white!"

During his last visit to the village, Romero gave that man a gift of a knife his brother had sent him from New Mexico.

Not everything that came from the war was disastrous; Romero says it gave him a life's purpose. After watching children whose lives would be torn apart by the war in those Vietnamese villages, Romero vowed to help kids when he returned home. And he did.

With his wife, Paulita Mirabal, Romero started a family, and he worked as a student living adviser at Santa Fe Indian School. After 16 years, the couple moved back to Taos Pueblo. For seven years, he served as the Indian education director for Taos Municipal Schools until his physical, emotional and psychological war wounds opened up again in the form of nightmares and flashbacks.

Talking about it all with other war veterans helps, he says. So does working to honor the sacrifice made by Native Americans in military conflicts. Toward that end, he helped spearhead a financial campaign to build a monument honoring Taos Pueblo veterans. The granite stone memorials include names of past and present Taos Pueblo veterans from all wars, with room to add more who serve in the future.

Romero says that as a Native American -- one of an estimated 42,000 who served in Vietnam -- he doesn't question his involvement in the conflict.

"Some people said they didn't know why we were there," he says. "I knew. This is my country, this is my people. Native Americans were here first. Whenever we are threatened by anybody, we go and we fight and protect our people and our homeland.

"That's what I did."

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