An Unexpected, Unforgettable Moment
Benito Garcia was a tunnel rat during the Vietnam War.
I first learned of Benito when viewing the documentary “Killing Memories” in preparation for Fayetteville’s first Heroes Homecoming in 2011 honoring the Vietnam War veterans. The film captured the story of six Vietnam War veterans’ return to Vietnam and the battlefields where they had fought. We invited Benito and five other veterans from the film as our guests for the city’s events surrounding Veterans Day.
In the film, each had shared their personal reflections on the war, the way they were treated upon their return home, and their lives since. We felt their stories would be compelling for this military town so connected to that war, and we were anxious to meet them in person.
I had reservations about meeting Benito. In the film he shared that he had participated in many cruelties during his tour including beheading North Vietnamese soldiers. After the war he robbed banks in Chicago and even served time in prison. I had seen little to like about him and was even a little afraid of the encounter.
I was Fayetteville’s mayor at the time. My wife Joanne, George Breece and I met the veterans upon their arrival. We sat and listened as they shared their stories of the war and their return home. We were surprised to hear that Benito had been stationed at Fort Bragg with the 173rd Airborne Division before deploying to Vietnam. As everyone’s comfort level with each other grew, he shared with us that he had “got drunk one night and woke up the next morning married.” I wondered how many of America’s other sons had similar experiences in this military town during that period.
Benito solemnly told us of the birth of a child here in 1968 who died just a few hours after birth. She had been buried in a pauper’s grave somewhere in the city. Soon after, he had left for Vietnam, never to return to Fayetteville. He had no idea where the gravesite was.
Benito’s story touched our hearts. We contacted Register of Deeds Lee Warren to research death records to help locate the gravesite. Damon Hickman from Parks and Rec found a plat of a gravesite off Moore Street where we were able to find the unmarked grave.
Less than 24 hours later, on a cold and wet Thursday afternoon, we led Benito and the other veterans to the gravesite. Joanne brought a simple bouquet of flowers for Benito to put on the grave, a place he had not seen in over 40 years.
It was such an emotional sight, to see this hard man, once so full of anger and evil, fall to his knees in tears at the site of his daughter’s unmarked grave. Through the tears he shared with us that there were more people there on this cold and rainy afternoon than had been there when his baby daughter was buried decades earlier.
We later asked Benito if he wanted us to help explore moving his daughter’s remains to be closer to his family in Illinois. But he immediately said no, he wanted her to remain here “with her friends.” There was no prouder moment for me as the mayor of this military town.
To experience the transformation of this once-evil man to the sobbing father of a long–lost child captured, in some ways, the emotional complexities of that war.
The next year, on the 44th birthday of his daughter, our community installed a gravestone on the site. Benito’s entire family, including the woman he found himself married to all those years ago, attended the memorial ceremony, along with the other veterans from “Killing Memories.”
There is no doubt that our country and our community did a disservice to our Vietnam veterans upon their return home. Our city also paid a price for decades in tarnished name and unfair reputation as a result of that unfortunate time in our nation’s history.
But on that cold and rainy Thursday afternoon, in the fog of an unmarked pauper’s graveyard, Fayetteville did itself proud for one Vietnam War veteran and for one special angel, Yvonne Angelica Garcia, who rests peacefully today with her friends.