Ernie Juan

Following is the article written by Don Dedera in "The Arizona Republic." I do not have an exact date for this, but I believe it was in late April of 1968. My comments follow this article.


War's Toll Interrupts Spring's Melody in White Mountain Air

by Don Dedera, "The Arizona Republic"

This is a good season to be male and young and alive in McNary, in the White Mountains of Arizona.

Trout that survived the harsh winter are vulnerable to nymphs cast into the snow-fed streams. Yearling Hereford bulls romp in fields where wild iris stir. The dawns are heralded by tom turkeys calling, and the dusks bring elk to browse the edges of the open green parks.

The air is filled with baseballs, northbound ducks, and the lumber town's incomparable perfume of conifer pitch and mill smoke.

Roads are open to Springerville and Show Low. Schools all around are planning parties. Girls who have been disguised in parkas and mackinaws are appearing downtown in cottons: nymphs to the troutlike boys patrolling McNary streets in their cars.

A great time to be.

"I think this is what makes us feel this loss so deeply," said the Rev. Marcian Bucher, OFM, priest of St. Anthony parish at McNary. "They were so young."

It was Father Marcian's sad duty to bury Ernest Madrid and Juan Sedillo less than three months apart.

Ernie was a spec. 4 paratrooper. He was killed in the Tet offensive near the U.S. embassy in Saigon. Johnny was a Marine corporal. He endured the siege of Khe Sanh, then died when he stepped on an enemy mine as his battalion marched away.*

Both were altar boys at St. Anthony's. They were from similar Mexican-American families. Their dads, mill workers. Good athletes, they were both graduates of the Class of '66, McNary High.

There were five boys in that graduating class. McNary now has given two-fifths of the male graduates of 1966 to the war in Vietnam.

"We have gone to the cemetery a block from our church twice, and two times I have had to find the words," said Father Marcian. "That is too many times for a town of this size, a parish of this size. Life must go on, but we are numb.

"In their special ways, they were both wonderful kids. Ernie was mischievous but never mean. Johnny was quiet and thoughtful. We wouldn't have had either of them any different. The one thing they had in common was a respect for their elders, a quality pretty rare these days.

"It's not my place to make controversial statements, and I'd rather not. I've no patience with the draft evaders and protesters. But I hope and pray that what we are doing and how we are going about it in Vietnam is worth the cost. Because the cost is high."

Now is the season for packing in to the Little Diamond and exchanging brags with buddies over a fire where simmers an oven of beef and beans.

Or for joining the green chain gang sorting the wet boards slabbed off by the screaming saws -- handsome pocket money for the summer nights.

Or a time for stacking slash and fighting fire with the Forest Service. Or for helping on the road crews and maybe saving for college next autumn and thinking seriously about the plans that men must make when they are 20.

{ * Note correction: Juan died as a result of head wounds received from a mortar fragment, April 8, 1968. }

The above article was sent to me by a family friend who wrote to tell me of Juan's death. At the time, I was in my freshman year of college in Virginia.

I grew up with both Juan and Ernie in McNary. They were fine young men, well liked, and from close families that raised their children with much warmth and laughter, from the kinds of families where the word "family" takes its real meaning.

When Juan and I were both just 13, special feelings developed between us. "Puppy love," one might say; and it is true that we were too young then to do anything about how we felt. But we promised each other that when we were older, we would do something about those feelings.

So, in spite of the fact that I moved far away a few months later, in spite of the fact that other romances captured both of us at times during our high school years, somehow the bond held. We stayed in touch with one another; and, ultimately, we kept those promises.

In June of 1967, Juan went to Vietnam and served with the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, 3rd Marine Division until April of 1968, becoming head Battalion Radio Operator. In this position, he was Lt. Col. John F. Mitchell's radio op much of the time.

I mailed him "Care Packages" stuffed with Kool-Aid and cookies, shared the poems and stories I was writing, sent a lock of my hair in a baby-blue ribbon, and a silver St. Christopher medal. He sent me photos, Snoopy cartoons, samples of C-rats, a can opener to use for them, and his Lance Corporal chevron when he was promoted to Corporal.

We wrote, daily it seemed, speaking of our feelings, our hopes, and our dreams. By the end of 1967, he asked me in a letter to be his wife -- my answer was several pages long because I literally wrote "Yes" a thousand times. Out of consideration for our families, it seemed best to wait until his return to the States to formalize our engagement and think about a date.

Early in 1968, we heard the terrible news that we had lost Ernie, who had been Juan's best friend all his life. By then, Juan was enduring the siege of Khe Sanh; and I didn't know what I could say to him ... without Ernie, there would always be an empty place; and words weren't going to fill it.

And then Juan was killed. In five more days, he would have been home.

In his final letter to me, which I received on the same day I got the above article that told me of his death, Juan wrote, "Just these few lines to say I love you and to let you know that all is well. This will be my last operation as far as going to the field. I guess I am sort of scared, but then who isn't. Tonight, I look at your picture; and I am reassured of your love for me, and you always bring me good luck. I'll let you know how it turned out. God Bless You, and say a prayer for us."

Comments are welcome.

Barbara Ely Piatt