You’ve probably never heard about LeRoy Tafoya, Jimmy Martinez, or Tom Gonzales, but I think you should. All three were buddies with one another. They grew up together in the town of Midvale, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City. All three boys lived within three blocks of each other on Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Avenues. They were practically inseparable. They were the best of friends who spent countless hours together playing ball in a nearby sandlot ball field, as well as doing other boyhood activities. They did almost everything together, including making the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
All three served in the military. Leroy was drafted into the army, Tom enlisted in the Army, and Jimmy enlisted in the Marine Corps. They were all sent to Vietnam at about the same time, and all three of them died in combat within a 16-day period in 1967. LeRoy was the youngest of the friends, but the first one to die. He was 19-years-old when he was killed in action on November 22, which was also the fourth anniversary of the death of President Kennedy. Less than 24-hours later, on Thanksgiving Day, 20-year-old Jimmy was killed. Two-weeks later, on December 7th, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day, Tom was killed in action. Tom was also 20 at the time of his death and a few days away from returning home.
Some have remarked that all three of them were just boys when they died. I must disagree. Sadly, although all three died before they had reached the age of 21, all three of them died as men! All three of their names can be found among the 58,272 names engraved in the black granite wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in Washington, D.C. Those names represent those Americans who died in the Vietnam War. Ironically, even though the memorial is more than 246 feet long and is made up of 140 panels, because those three friends died so close to the same date, their names are separated only by a few lines. Frank LeRoy Tafoya’s name is found on panel 30E, line 67. Jimmy Martinez’ name is found on panel 30E, line 72. Tom Gonzales’s name is found on panel 31E, line 58. Ironically, the boys who grew up so near one another, and died within days of one another, have their names listed on the memorial even closer together than their houses were.
As we celebrate Memorial Day, we salute Mr. Tafoya, Mr. Martinez, and Mr. Gonzales, along with all the many others, in all American wars, who gave their lives in service for our country. Certainly, we salute those we knew, but like those three young men, there are countless others who we never knew, but they gave their all for us. I have had the honor of visiting the numerous monuments at The National Mall in Washington. Each and every one of them stirred my heart with gratitude for our nation, and especially for those who gave their lives. The changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier is awe inspiring. It moved me to tears. I remember reading those thousands of names etched on the Vietnam Memorial Wall and thinking that I didn’t know those men and women. They were unknown soldiers to me, but to someone they were their child, parent, sibling, family, or a childhood friend who lived on the next street! They are so much more than a name on a monument. They were real people. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Happy Memorial Day!
— Bill King is a native of Rainsville, where he and his wife graduated from Plainview High School. King is a director of missions in Opelika, a writer, musician and author. His column appears in the Times-Journal weekend edition. Visit brobillybob.com for more information.