Veterans of Morenci create new homecoming decades after return from war

Many of the veterans in the caravan from Phoenix to Morenci fly United States and POW flags on their motorcycles. (Photo by Selena Makrides)

By Selena Makrides

MORENCI, ARIZ. — Several times a year, a band of Phoenix-area Vietnam veterans embark on a hundreds-strong pilgrimage to their hometown of Morenci, the origin of their service.

Oscar Urrea, who organized the most recent trip to Morenci, is a Latino veteran of the Vietnam War. His brothers were veterans of the Vietnam War. Most of his childhood friends and community leaders were veterans. And now, as he approaches 69 years old, his life is still centered around service.

For the riders, coming back to Morenci means coming back to a place where their time spent in war is recognized and appreciated.

“People say, ‘thank you for your service’ there. You don’t see that as much in places like Phoenix,” Urrea said.

Urrea was born and raised in this “quiet, peaceful” and “very patriotic” mining town. When the mines opened in 1872, a dearth of miners brought families up from northern Mexico. His parents’ lives, like many others, were tied to the copper mining industry.

Morenci is also home to the eponymous “Morenci 9,” a group of young men who enlisted in the Marine Corps together during the Vietnam War, only to see six of their brethren die in combat.

The town remains filled with veterans from the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Don Lunt, who has lived in Morenci for 87 years, is the informal town historian. Though he never saw combat himself, he said serving was “just the way it was” during his time.

Lunt’s wife, Jo Lunt, said because Morenci offered little in the way of opportunity for young men itching for adventure, many enlisted.

“They really didn’t have a lot of choice of what to do besides the mine. These young men wanted to go” into the military, she said. “They didn’t have the money to go to college. They didn’t want to work for the mines, so they chose the service.”

Urrea said the patriotism in his hometown was palpable and infectious; it pervaded every aspect of the young men’s lives growing up.

“In the grammar schools and on through high school, I noticed there was a lot of comradery amongst the vets — the older vets especially — and they did a lot for us in our youth. I think that from them we learned a lot about leadership and how to apply ourselves and become better patriots,” he said.

George, who served in the Marine Corps, wears a back-brace to help him stay comfortable on the arduous ride to Morenci/Clifton. (Photo by Selena Makrides)

George Salasar Jr., who served in the Marine Corps, wears a back brace to help him stay comfortable on the arduous ride to Morenci/Clifton. (Photo by Selena Makrides)

Veterans led the local boy scout troops and coached the high school sports teams. They taught the boys of Morenci survival skills and how to apply them. Together they would go tubing down the San Francisco River in the summer and hiking through the mountains in the winter.

“They strived for excellence. If you could give them 100 percent, they would want 110 percent,” Urrea said of his mentors.

Eventually, the young men of Morenci outgrew the boy scouts and were served with their own call to arms.

“The comradery was very strong amongst us young men,” Urrea said, “so much so that when the war hit in Vietnam, we weren’t around waiting to be drafted. A lot of us signed up.”

Robert Cisneros, 66, was one of those young men.

“I made a promise to my mother,” he said. “She was in the hospital. She was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and she made me promise her that I would join the air force so the army wouldn’t take me to Vietnam.”

As soon as Cisneros turned 18, he and his father — who wanted to enlist, too, but didn’t — drove to Tucson to sign him up. Eventually, his brother joined him. On his mother’s side, 47 cousins have served in different branches of the military. After some traveling post-deployment, he returned to Morenci.

When Urrea left for college in California, he thought he, at least, was spared from the conflict. But his funds ran low, and he was forced to withdraw from school. The draft caught up with him. He joined the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army, or the “Screaming Eagles,” in 1969. The war needed more bodies to replace those coming back. Many were mangled or worse.

In Vietnam, Urrea saw horror and heroism intermingle. He and his hometown buddy made a pact that led Urrea to the work he does today.

“I made a commitment, seeing how we were basically used as cannon fodder and so many lives were just, like, wasted,” he said. “I made a promise to one of my good friends, that if either one of us were to survive, we would dedicate ourselves to helping our vets.”

His friend didn’t make it back, but Urrea honored the pact nonetheless. Now, he said, he “gets in the trenches” with Phoenix-area veterans on a volunteer basis, doing everything from driving them to appointments to helping them with Department of Veterans Affairs paperwork.

There’s “no more powder and lead coming out, but just knowledge of working with these vets going on 43 years,” he said of his work.

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The drive to Morenci was winding, mountainous and picturesque. Along the way, the caravan’s numbers grew as they made several pit stops to pick up their friends. As the roaring throng of veterans approached the town, people stood outside their houses and storefronts to wave American flags and take pictures of the passing heroes.

This homecoming is loud, ostentatious and proud; it’s opposite of the experience many of them had when they first returned from combat. Anti-Vietnam protestors greeted returning soldiers at the airport with signs and jeers, and veterans reported having trouble joining at their local Veterans of Foreign Wars posts.

Morenci is home to roughly 1,500 and is 53 percent Hispanic or Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

American Legion Swift-Murphy Post 32, located in the small town of Safford, Arizona, added another ten veterans to the caravan. (Photo by Selena Makrides)

A stop at the American Legion Swift-Murphy Post 32, located in the small town of Safford, Ariz., added another 10 veterans to the caravan. (Photo by Selena Makrides)

Urrea believes that a Latino veteran’s overall success is contingent on a smooth reintegration into civilian life. Luckily, Latino communities tend to rally around their veterans when they return home, providing food, shelter or even homegrown funds to send veterans, or their children, to college, he said.

Latinos make up about 6 percent of United States Military veterans, according to a 2014 report from the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics. Veterans constitute 11 percent of the homeless population in the United States, and 45 percent of those homeless veterans are African-American or Hispanic, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

The government, which is ostensibly responsible for the welfare of servicemen and women, isn’t always as equipped to handle the volume of returning veterans, Urrea said.

“Our veterans come from a war zone, and then they’re put up into the public sector. They’re already coming back with mental or physical wounds. The VA tries their best, but by the time they hit the streets and are seeking employment, there is a transition period where they don’t really have enough support,” Urrea said.

Urrea described the VA’s attitude toward veteran health care as “delay, deny and hope you die.”

Systemic failures aren’t the only, or even the greatest, obstacles that veterans face. There exists a divide between veterans and the larger civilian world that prevents some from feeling safe and comfortable in their own communities, according to Urrea. Many of his veteran friends choose to live in rural areas as a way to inoculate themselves against a world that, more often than not, can’t understand their experiences.

“They choose to live there because, ‘Hey, I don’t want to face all these folks around me, I can’t trust ‘em.’ They feel more comfortable. But they live with that trauma. Until they get the proper care they’ll stay weak mentally, and they’ll fall apart,” he said. “They feel more compassion in rural areas because still the patriotism is there. People tell them ‘thank you for your service.’”

Some Latino veterans even faced discrimination from the very country they risked their lives for.

Ismael Ortega, 86, served in the Korean War from 1951 to 1953. He says he enjoys living in neighboring Clifton “very much” and estimates that 90 percent of the local kids end up serving in the armed forces.

Oscar Urrea, Robert Cisneros, Ismael Ortega and two other veterans enjoy some shade during the festivities at Riverside Park. (Photo by Selena Makrides)

Oscar Urrea, Robert Cisneros, Ismael Ortega and two other veterans enjoy some shade at Riverside Park where there was a barbecue and a ceremony recognizing service through the decades. (Photo by Selena Makrides)

“In my time, there was a lot of discrimination. There was a lot of places that they wouldn’t let us in even if we were in uniform. They didn’t care about the uniform,” he said.

Soft-spoken Ortega became emotional when he remembered returning home.

“When I came back from Korea — not to here but to California — I went to the store to get some beer and they told me they wouldn’t serve to Mexicans,” he said as tears welled in his eyes, “and I was in uniform.”

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Urrea said too much media coverage of veterans is focused on their failures and the failures of the VA system.

“We are trying to perpetuate a positive image of our veteran. We’re not asking for handouts, just an open hand to help us,” he said.

First and foremost, though, the media needs to show up and listen.

“What I would like the media do is go into, for example, Clifton/Morenci. We need the media to go in there and see what we do when we have events that really mean a lot to the them,” he said.

Cisneros sees reciprocating a veteran’s service as even simpler than that: “Give them the respect that they’ve earned. Just don’t forget ‘em, especially the ones that have risked their lives.”

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