These Vietnam veterans help so others will never be abandoned again

Surrounded by the trees and hills of Julian, Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient John Baca flips through a binder of thank you cards for the apple pies he sends veterans. At his elbow, the widow of one of this nation’s first combat casualties after 9/11 beams.

It is a moment of friendship, of sharing, of a bridge between two wars. But it is also about much more.

The thank you cards – and the bond between Baca and Mary Ellen Bancroft, both wounded in very different ways by very different wars – embody the legacy of America’s Vietnam veterans.

Shunned by many, including the American Legion, the Vietnam Veterans of America is the largest and most active group of veterans in the U.S. Its motto: “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.”

A former Orange County resident, Baca has a park named after him in Huntington Beach. But as appreciative as Baca is for the recognition, the soldier who threw himself on a grenade to save eight buddies is not a man who pays much attention to such things.

Baca and other warriors like him focus on reaching out to families like Bancroft’s and helping veterans both young and old deal with such things as navigating VA hospitals, managing finances, coping with PTSD.

But for the day that memorializes the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, Baca and retired Marine Corps Maj. William “Monsoon” Mimiaga are willing to discuss how the lessons of the past can guide us into the future.

PEACE ON MOUNTAINTOP

To escape the chaos of Orange County, Baca moved from Huntington Beach to Julian, a town at 4,200 feet with barely a thousand people. His rambling rented cabin is heated by a potbellied wood stove. The bathtub sits on clawed feet. Faded carpet remnants cover the backyard to stop gophers.

We settle on the concrete patio with Baca’s big black poodle, Jo-Jo, and sit in silence sipping coffee and watching hummingbirds hover over a feeder that Baca rigged up.

Baca isn’t comfortable in crowds. But he puts up with them because he knows the Medal of Honor means so much to so many. He doesn’t have cable television. And instead of Vietnam War-era rock like the Doors, he prefers lilting tunes or early ’60s soft oldies that remind him of a Vietnam War-era veteran, friend and neighbor who died earlier this month.

After a bit, Bancroft and her daughter arrive. Now 13 years old, Maddie was just 8 months old when her father, Capt. Matthew Bancroft, was killed with six other Marines on a Pakistan mountain while struggling to land a transport plane on a darkened runway.

For a child to grow up without a father is something Baca understands all too well. He was at the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and remembers many young men he fought with in the jungles of Vietnam who were killed before seeing their babies out of diapers.

Later, Baca makes his rounds helping others. We climb into his aging red pickup with a broken handle on the passenger side and deliver the newspaper to a man in his 90s who is past being able to trudge down his long driveway.

We drop by the post office to pick up mail in a town that doesn’t deliver and to send off not pies – a rarity for Baca – but well-read books. We swing back to the 96-year-old fellow’s place, climb stairs and hand him mail.

Back on the patio and armed with more coffee, I turn the conversation toward the war and the fall of Saigon.

Baca squints at the cracked concrete, frowns and shakes his head. The last U.S. combat troops pulled out in 1973, the same year the POWs came home. By 1975, the fall of Saigon didn’t mean much.

Instead, Baca shares about his return to Vietnam.

BACK IN VIETNAM

It was 1990 when the Medal of Honor recipient returned to the country where he left much of his stomach, chunks of intestine, pieces of bone and ligament. Instead of warfare, he arrived to build something for the Red Cross called a Friendship Clinic, a small hospital of sorts. He left with friends for life.

The clinic – like much of North Vietnam – had been destroyed by U.S. bombs. Every day for nearly two months, Baca and several other Americans walked to the site to rebuild. Over time, Baca gave out Frisbees, chatted with locals, made friends with kids, restored the 10-room clinic – and had fun.

“We were like a circus act,” Baca recalls of the villagers’ reactions. He grins. “It was a beautiful time. When I left, we exchanged tears.”

Baca recalls being told that one of the Vietnamese volunteers was a soldier he captured on Christmas Day in 1969. “But,” Baca says metaphorically, “I think all the volunteers were that man.”

After the build, Baca visited where the My Lai massacre occurred in 1968. “There were murals of helicopters shooting mothers holding babies. It’s depressing what happened.”

In what is now officially Hanoi City, Baca came across an Amerasian woman in her mid-20s. He ended up sponsoring the woman, her husband and their two children to come to the United States.

“The Vietnamese are so poor on the outside, but so rich on the inside,” Baca says tells me. “It’s just the opposite here. We’re so materialistic. We just keep wanting more.”

Baca looks up at blue sky breaking through gray clouds. He has a gift for memorizing and shares a poem he learned in Vietnam:

“When you wake up to the sound of the wind, it’s your Vietnamese friends calling.

“When you wake up to the sunlight, it’s the eyelight of your Vietnamese friend. When you wake up to the rain, it’s the tears of the farmer. And when you wake up to nothing, it means war has returned to our land.”

FALL OF SAIGON

Mimiaga is a friend of Baca’s. He served 31 years in the Corps, addresses friends with a hearty, “Oooorah, Semper Fi,” and has a second career teaching troubled sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in Long Beach. He’s also a California Teacher of the Year with breast cancer, most likely caused by Agent Orange.

The retired major was attending warrant officer school at Quantico the day Saigon fell. He recalls that most warriors knew U.S. promises to help South Vietnam in those final days were empty. Still, when the communists stormed Saigon, everyone at Quantico was dumbfounded.

“It was a surreal mix knowing 58,000 guys had been lost, hundreds of thousands wounded,” Mimiaga says as he drives toward Camp Pendleton. “I was pissed off with our government for not providing more support.”

But what really frustrates Mimiaga is politicians’ inability to learn from history.

“The Vietnamese fought the Chinese, the Japanese, the French, the Americans,” he points out. “The Vietnamese wanted one nation. My God, you can’t blame them.”

Then he adds that tribes in Afghanistan fought the British, the Russians, the Americans. He feels the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – as in Vietnam – were poorly run with limited fighting options for U.S. troops. The result was more Americans killed, more needless widows.

“And now we have ISIS,” Mimiaga says, his voice trailing off. “The military industrial complex is the only one that profits.”

As Mimiaga talks, he pulls into Camp Pendleton and changes instantly, offering a resounding “Oooorah.” As he drives by a vast field of brown weeds, he recalls the days when he was responsible for setting up many of the giant tents that housed the first waves of Vietnamese refugees.

TENTS FOR REFUGEES

Approaching Pendleton’s western perimeter, Mimiaga points to a crumbling, giant white hand some 10 feet tall.

A concrete plaque with orange writing calls it the “Hand of Hope.” Built by two Marines and designed by artist Nguyen Luu Dat, the piece has an inscription that reads, “This statue commemorates the warm reception given by the American people to thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees during ‘Operation New Arrival’ in 1975.

“Nearly 50,000 refugees were housed at Camp Talega, Cristianitos, and San Onofre while awaiting processing and American sponsors.”

The words take Mimiaga back to when huge planes landed load after load of refugees. “It was only at night,” Mimiaga recalls. “I don’t know why.”

But the state of disrepair is just time marching on as far as Mimiaga is concerned. What matters to the retired Marine is how well the refugees have done.

Mimiaga gazes at wilderness that was home to thousands of Vietnamese families. “You’ve assimilated so well,” Mimiaga says softly, addressing all those souls. “You took care of each other. You are generals, council members, mayors, judges, prosecutors.”

As we head back to Orange County, the school teacher says with pride, “I love that base.”

Understand that for Mimiaga, Baca and so many other warriors, the base isn’t about learning the art of war – although there is that.

The base is about helping others, whether it’s a buddy in a foxhole, saving a squad from a grenade or giving comfort to refugees from a foreign land.

It’s about never again abandoning someone in need.

Medal of Honor recipient John Baca, left, is greeted by Ret. Army Sgt. Greg Young of Yorba Linda before a service for their friend at Miramar National Cemetery. CINDY YAMANAKA, STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Medal of Honor recipient John Baca, left, is greeted by Ret. Army Sgt. Greg Young of Yorba Linda before a service for their friend at Miramar National Cemetery.
CINDY YAMANAKA, STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

John Baca stumbles upon a marble tombstone of a solider who was born in the same year as his mom and died on Baca's birthday.

John Baca stumbles upon a marble tombstone of a solider who was born in the same year as his mom and died on Baca’s birthday. “I wonder what my funeral will be like and how many people will be there,” he says as he wanders through Miramar National Cemetery. He also hopes for an even closer relationship with his daughter as he strolls along the tombstones.
///ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: david.vietnamvets.0425.cy – 04/16/15 – CINDY YAMANAKA, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER – B64538605Z.1 Medal of Honor recipient John Baca, he doesn’t trust the media but loves David. He and his good friend William (Bill) Mimiaga, 949-233-6036 will be at a service for Mike Mercy sp? at Miramar National Cemeterery.Service starts at 10 am. Bill is Baca’s “handler” and I agreed that we would supply them with images of the service. Mimiaga is also part of David’s story, he actually set up the tets at Campl Pendleton for the refugees.

Medal of Honor recipient John Baca receives hospital treatment after suffering wounds in Vietnam in 1969                       COURTESY JOHN BACA

Medal of Honor recipient John Baca receives hospital treatment after suffering wounds in Vietnam in 1969
COURTESY JOHN BACA

Ret. Major William Mimiaga, left, is consoled during a funeral for a friend and Army Sgt. Mike Murray at Miramar National Cemetery. ///ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: david.vietnamvets.0425.cy  Ð  04/16/15 Ð CINDY YAMANAKA, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER  - B64538605Z.1 Medal of Honor recipient John Baca, he doesn't trust the media but loves David. He and his good friend William (Bill) Mimiaga, 949-233-6036 will be at a service for Mike Mercy sp? at Miramar National Cemeterery.Service starts at 10 am. Bill is Baca's

Ret. Major William Mimiaga, left, is consoled during a funeral for a friend and Army Sgt. Mike Murray at Miramar National Cemetery.
///ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: david.vietnamvets.0425.cy Ð 04/16/15 Ð CINDY YAMANAKA, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER – B64538605Z.1 Medal of Honor recipient John Baca, he doesn’t trust the media but loves David. He and his good friend William (Bill) Mimiaga, 949-233-6036 will be at a service for Mike Mercy sp? at Miramar National Cemeterery.Service starts at 10 am. Bill is Baca’s “handler” and I agreed that we would supply them with images of the service. Mimiaga is also part of David’s story, he actually set up the tets at Campl Pendleton for the refugees.

Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient John Baca, center, memorializes his friend during a service held at Miramar National Cemetery. Baca, the Marine who threw himself on a grenade to save eight buddies, helps veterans cope with PTSD. Baca, who has a Huntington Beach park named after him, left Orange County for the more quiet life of Juilian.   ///ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: david.vietnamvets.0425.cy  Ð  04/16/15 Ð CINDY YAMANAKA, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER  - B64538605Z.1 Medal of Honor recipient John Baca, he doesn't trust the media but loves David. He and his good friend William (Bill) Mimiaga, 949-233-6036 will be at a service for Mike Mercy sp? at Miramar National Cemeterery.Service starts at 10 am. Bill is Baca's

Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient John Baca, center, memorializes his friend during a service held at Miramar National Cemetery. Baca, the Marine who threw himself on a grenade to save eight buddies, helps veterans cope with PTSD. Baca, who has a Huntington Beach park named after him, left Orange County for the more quiet life of Juilian.
///ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: david.vietnamvets.0425.cy Ð 04/16/15 Ð CINDY YAMANAKA, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER – B64538605Z.1 Medal of Honor recipient John Baca, he doesn’t trust the media but loves David. He and his good friend William (Bill) Mimiaga, 949-233-6036 will be at a service for Mike Mercy sp? at Miramar National Cemeterery.Service starts at 10 am. Bill is Baca’s “handler” and I agreed that we would supply them with images of the service. Mimiaga is also part of David’s story, he actually set up the tets at Campl Pendleton for the refugees.

Medal of Honor recpient John Baca looks at thank-you notes for sending apple pies from Julian to comfort others. From left, Mary Ellen Bancroft whose husband, Capt. Matthew Bancroft, was killed in Pakistan shortly after 9/11 and her daughter, Maddie, right.                       DAVID WHITING, STAFF

Medal of Honor recpient John Baca looks at thank-you notes for sending apple pies from Julian to comfort others. From left, Mary Ellen Bancroft whose husband, Capt. Matthew Bancroft, was killed in Pakistan shortly after 9/11 and her daughter, Maddie, right.
DAVID WHITING, STAFF

Melissa Murray holds niece Olivia Gievelman,1, as they are greeted by Ret. Major William Mimiaga, during a funeral Murray's father-in-law at Miramar National Cemetery.  ///ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: david.vietnamvets.0425.cy  Ð  04/16/15 Ð CINDY YAMANAKA, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER  - B64538605Z.1 Medal of Honor recipient John Baca, he doesn't trust the media but loves David. He and his good friend William (Bill) Mimiaga, 949-233-6036 will be at a service for Mike Mercy sp? at Miramar National Cemeterery.Service starts at 10 am. Bill is Baca's

Melissa Murray holds niece Olivia Gievelman,1, as they are greeted by Ret. Major William Mimiaga, during a funeral Murray’s father-in-law at Miramar National Cemetery.
///ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: david.vietnamvets.0425.cy Ð 04/16/15 Ð CINDY YAMANAKA, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER – B64538605Z.1 Medal of Honor recipient John Baca, he doesn’t trust the media but loves David. He and his good friend William (Bill) Mimiaga, 949-233-6036 will be at a service for Mike Mercy sp? at Miramar National Cemeterery.Service starts at 10 am. Bill is Baca’s “handler” and I agreed that we would supply them with images of the service. Mimiaga is also part of David’s story, he actually set up the tets at Campl Pendleton for the refugees.

John Baca of Julian is urged to wear his Vietnam War Medal of Honor by friend William Mimiaga who served 31 years in the Corps and has a second career teaching troubled 6th, 7th and 8th graders in Long Beach. HeÕs also a Teacher of the Year with breast cancer, mostly likely due to Agent Orange. ///ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: david.vietnamvets.0425.cy  Ð  04/16/15 Ð CINDY YAMANAKA, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER  - B64538605Z.1 Medal of Honor recipient John Baca, he doesn't trust the media but loves David. He and his good friend William (Bill) Mimiaga, 949-233-6036 will be at a service for Mike Mercy sp? at Miramar National Cemeterery.Service starts at 10 am. Bill is Baca's

John Baca of Julian is urged to wear his Vietnam War Medal of Honor by friend William Mimiaga who served 31 years in the Corps and has a second career teaching troubled 6th, 7th and 8th graders in Long Beach. HeÕs also a Teacher of the Year with breast cancer, mostly likely due to Agent Orange.
///ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: david.vietnamvets.0425.cy Ð 04/16/15 Ð CINDY YAMANAKA, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER – B64538605Z.1 Medal of Honor recipient John Baca, he doesn’t trust the media but loves David. He and his good friend William (Bill) Mimiaga, 949-233-6036 will be at a service for Mike Mercy sp? at Miramar National Cemeterery.Service starts at 10 am. Bill is Baca’s “handler” and I agreed that we would supply them with images of the service. Mimiaga is also part of David’s story, he actually set up the tets at Campl Pendleton for the refugees.

Vietnam veterans help other veterans regardless of the war. Here, Medal of Honor recipient John Baca, right, shares breakfast in Julian where he lives. From left, retired Marine Maj. William Mimiaga, Mary Ellen Bancroft, whose husband, Capt. Matthew Bancroft, was killed in Pakistan shortly after 9/11, and her daughter, Maddie.                      DAVID WHITING, STAFF

Vietnam veterans help other veterans regardless of the war. Here, Medal of Honor recipient John Baca, right, shares breakfast in Julian where he lives. From left, retired Marine Maj. William Mimiaga, Mary Ellen Bancroft, whose husband, Capt. Matthew Bancroft, was killed in Pakistan shortly after 9/11, and her daughter, Maddie.
DAVID WHITING, STAFF

Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient John Baca, right, shares stories of his close friend and neighbor, Mike Murray, in picture frame, at Miramar National Cemetery.  ///ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: david.vietnamvets.0425.cy  Ð  04/16/15 Ð CINDY YAMANAKA, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER  - B64538605Z.1 Medal of Honor recipient John Baca, he doesn't trust the media but loves David. He and his good friend William (Bill) Mimiaga, 949-233-6036 will be at a service for Mike Mercy sp? at Miramar National Cemeterery.Service starts at 10 am. Bill is Baca's

Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient John Baca, right, shares stories of his close friend and neighbor, Mike Murray, in picture frame, at Miramar National Cemetery.
///ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: david.vietnamvets.0425.cy Ð 04/16/15 Ð CINDY YAMANAKA, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER – B64538605Z.1 Medal of Honor recipient John Baca, he doesn’t trust the media but loves David. He and his good friend William (Bill) Mimiaga, 949-233-6036 will be at a service for Mike Mercy sp? at Miramar National Cemeterery.Service starts at 10 am. Bill is Baca’s “handler” and I agreed that we would supply them with images of the service. Mimiaga is also part of David’s story, he actually set up the tets at Campl Pendleton for the refugees.

Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient John Baca returned to Vietnam in 1990. His second tour of duty in Vietnam was to build something for the Red Cross called a ÒFriendship Clinic.Ó He attends a service for his close friend and Julian neighbor, an Army Sgt., at Miramar National Cemetery.  ///ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: david.vietnamvets.0425.cy  Ð  04/16/15 Ð CINDY YAMANAKA, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER  - B64538605Z.1 Medal of Honor recipient John Baca, he doesn't trust the media but loves David. He and his good friend William (Bill) Mimiaga, 949-233-6036 will be at a service for Mike Mercy sp? at Miramar National Cemeterery.Service starts at 10 am. Bill is Baca's

Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient John Baca returned to Vietnam in 1990. His second tour of duty in Vietnam was to build something for the Red Cross called a ÒFriendship Clinic.Ó He attends a service for his close friend and Julian neighbor, an Army Sgt., at Miramar National Cemetery.
///ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: david.vietnamvets.0425.cy Ð 04/16/15 Ð CINDY YAMANAKA, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER – B64538605Z.1 Medal of Honor recipient John Baca, he doesn’t trust the media but loves David. He and his good friend William (Bill) Mimiaga, 949-233-6036 will be at a service for Mike Mercy sp? at Miramar National Cemeterery.Service starts at 10 am. Bill is Baca’s “handler” and I agreed that we would supply them with images of the service. Mimiaga is also part of David’s story, he actually set up the tets at Campl Pendleton for the refugees.

Contact the writer: dwhiting@ocregister.com

 http://www.ocregister.com/articles/baca-659295-vietnam-mimiaga.html

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