It is about 3:00 p.m. and I am a little nervous. I am about 5 minutes away from meeting Joe " El Bravo" Bernal a local radio disc jockey here in Alice, TX. He is also the Soldier who asked my father to do him a favor and mail a letter, to his Mom, while they were in Vietnam.
I had already heard the story from his Mom about the delivery of the letter. I wanted to see if he would tell me about the performance of Conjunto Bernal in Vietnam. My biggest concern was how to address Mr. Bernal. After all, his nickname was "El Bravo", meaning "The Brave One" or "the Wild One". I had heard about Vietnam Veterans flipping out and stuff so..Yes I was nervous.
I arrived at Joe's house and his wife informed me that he was in the garage. I made my way there and saw a man with a vest on and had all kinds of medals. I guess he sensed me because he quickly turned around, saw me, and with a smile said, "Damn, you look just like your father!" I stretched out my hand and said, "Mr. Bernal it is an honor to me you, Sir." He said that he didn't want to shake my hand he wanted to give me a big hug. He did just that. He was slightly shorter than me and he lifted me off my feet. He then put me down and said, "Please…call me Joe." I quickly felt at ease and started the conversation about the letter.
He pretty much told me the story that his Mom told me. He stopped the story and said that my father and the whole Conjunto Bernal were Heroes. I asked him Why? They went and gave you guys A TASTE OF HOME. It was the least they could do. They were very honored to be there. He had a small beard on his face peppered with a blend of black and gray hairs. He looked me in the face with small "beady eyes" that sparkled and I knew I was going to hear something special.
He told me that on that day, before the concert was to start, you could hear gunfire and mortar shells going off in the distance. The military personnel in charge gathered the group together and told them that the Vietcong was at the five mile perimeter and they advised that maybe they should leave. The group got together and they made a decision to stay. They had been advised that the troops out in combat would "hold the fort" until the concert was done.
All of the Conjunto said that if the troops were willing to put their lives on the line for their fellow soldiers…. Then so would the conjunto. Conjunto Bernal quickly got on stage and gave the soldiers a performance of a lifeime. I am looking at Joe and it was like he had traveled back in time to that very place. He had a big, bearded smile on his face…Then his face turned serious and he stated that Bernal had played for about 35 minutes when a stray bullet hit one of the speakers. The concert was stopped and the conjunto was whisked away on a helicopter. I remember my Dad telling me that the one thing that was constant in Vietnam was the sound of helicopters. The Vietcong was about 3 miles away by now so the base had to prepare for battle.
Mr. Bernal said that after about another 30 minutes the Vietcong had arrived and there was a fierce battle. He told me that it lasted forever and he got pretty graphic about the details and was starting to scare me. In my mind though I was thinking " Bull Crap" he is just trying to scare me.
The conversation turned back to where they had a meet and greet time before the concert. Joe said that cameras were not allowed for some reason but he manage to have a small camera that took color pictures. He showed me a color photo that he took of my father and then another one of Domingo Pena. He then turned serious again and said, " I also took pictures of the battle afterwards…Do You want to see them ?" Not knowing what to say I just nodded a yes….Big mistake. I saw color pictures of a horrifying scene. There was burnt bodies all around the perimeter. I looked at about 4 photos and I didn't want to see anymore.
He asked if I wanted to keep them and I quickly said NO! He said that it was only the enemy and that I shouldn't feel bad. They were the bad guys. I told him that for him maybe. He had a puzzled look on his face and asked what I meant by that. I told him that I meant no disrespect but he was a soldier and he had to do what he had to do to survive. I told him that I also understood that they were fighting a war that was NOT THEIRS. I told him that I was not a soldier and I didn't see the dead bodies as THE ENEMY. I told him that I saw someone's husband ,brother, father, son, uncle lying dead on the ground…They were doing their duty… Just like US…He just nodded his head in understanding…
I told him that it was getting late and I had to leave…I gave him a hug and thanked him for the story and then I thanked him for serving our Country. I walked to my car with the honored feeling of making a new friend…I had a new profound respect for ALL VETERANS…I drove off in my car and I realized that the real HEROES WERE THE ONES WHO DIED SO THAT THEIR BROTHERS COULD ENJOY A TASTE OF HOME….GOD BLESS AMERICA….GOD BLESS OUR VETERANS