Far removed from the fear and loathing of the 2004 presidential race-pitting two wealthy, Caucasian Yale graduates against each other-the tale of Benjamin Cueva, an unassuming, native-born Mexican who embodies the American Dream continues to tell itself on a quiet street blocks from downtown San Diego.
Born in Jalisco and raised in Tijuana, Cueva followed two brothers and his father-already a legal U.S. resident-and immigrated to San Diego at age 15. Despite struggles with the language, and the fact that his Mexican education had stopped after the sixth grade, Cueva was able to maintain average grades, excelling in mechanics and non-language classes at Coronado High School.
"There were three other Latinos in the school," Cueva says. "Maybe it was because many of the students were military kids and went to school in other parts of the world, but there was never tension or discrimination. Everybody was there to help you. It was a great place to go to school."
After graduation, in June of 1965, a letter came from the draft board-Cueva qualified A-1 for the lottery. That fall he began a full load at San Diego City College and in late October found out he was going to be drafted. As a wave of Americans pushed north to Canada, Cueva reviewed the many offers he'd received from military recruiters. After deciding the Navy offered the most attractive package, he volunteered for a four-year stint.
"My country called," Cueva says. "That was a letter from the president, calling me to duty. I showed up. I served with pride. I followed orders."
By the time he was 23, Cueva was one of only several Latinos in they Navy's 11th division (approximately 90 men) of the Mobile Riverine Force. One of the more active duties in Vietnam, the division's six-man boat crews patrolled the ambush-ridden rivers in the south of the country. Cueva served under an able captain, Lt. William Rood, on a 50-foot swift boat, PCF-23 (Patrol Craft Fast).
If not for the captain of PCF-94, a young lieutenant named John Kerry-and a day of heavy fighting in February 1969-Cueva would have let his time in Vietnam slip quietly into the past. Thanks to the contentious 2004 presidential race, the rivers of South Vietnam and the Americans who patrolled them have become the focus of national controversy. A contingent of former swift boat sailors has questioned both the medals that Kerry was awarded and the abridged nature-four months-of his time in Vietnam.
What remains clear through the mess of partisan mud slinging is that on Feb. 28, 1969, a three-boat team-PCF boats 23, 43 and 94-survived three separate ambushes. Seamen involved in those missions-including Rood, who is now an editor with the Chicago Tribune-say that a plan to charge ambushers, jointly devised with Kerry, worked effectively and helped thwart the enemy attacks. The 18 sailors on the three boats received an array of medals for their actions that day. Kerry was awarded the Silver Star and commended by Adm. Elmo Zumwalt for his initiative. Cueva received the Navy Commendation Medal with a combat "V" (valor).
Despite a fistful of medals and commendations from his tour of duty, Cueva, like many of the men who served with him, has spent 35 years trying to forget the war.
The recently retired grandfather prefers talking about his three daughters, their college educations and the teaching positions they hold with the San Diego Unified School District. Cueva himself spent 31 years with the school district as a mechanic. In December, he'll celebrate 34 years with his wife Zenaida.
The two met through Cueva's sister the summer after he returned from Vietnam. By that point he was deep into a process of self-therapy that involved a lot of time to himself and an almost-inhuman work schedule.
"I worked myself to death," he says. "That was my way of dealing with [readjustment to civilian life]. They were always looking for people to pick up an extra shift, and I always would-I'd worked 70 and 80 hours, sometimes seven days a week. I went from bed to work and work to bed. By the end of the day, I was too exhausted to think about anything. I just kept my mind focused on my next job, the next mission."
Another important aid, offered by the Navy, was a transition program run through the Long Beach Naval Station. That program, which combined military and non-military bosses-a steppingstone back into the less-structured civilian world-matched him with a post that used skills he'd developed through his mechanical specialty.
After nearly four years of separation, and still dealing with the strangeness of re-adapting to civilian life, Cueva wasn't ready to move back in with family. He rented an apartment in South Gate, Calif., and kept to his vigorous work schedule. On a family visit, he met Zenaida and the two hit it off quickly-they were married within a year. After another year in South Gate, they moved back to San Diego and began building what has become a multigenerational homestead in Barrio Logan.
Since retiring last year, Cueva hasn't slowed down much.
"I've got to many irons in the fire," he says, juggling the demands of working on one of his daughters' new house-she's moved in across the street-and helping out another daughter who needs him to pick up her kids at school.
Meanwhile, his hands still show the signs of mechanical labor-to the benefit of his neighbors' automobiles. His trips to visit family in Mexico have risen noticeably, and the one day a month he's faithfully poured into the Vietnam Unit Memorial Monument project on Coronado's Naval Amphibious Base has turned into three. That project, now into its fifth year, brought Sen. Kerry to San Diego for Veteran's Day in 2003.
"I just wish we could get more people to donate money," Cueva says of the memorial. "It's an ongoing project-something that keeps us together."
When the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth began questioning his war record last year, Kerry called former PCF-23 captain Rood and asked him to break his silence. In an Aug. 22 editorial that ran on the front page of the Chicago Tribune, Rood detailed his memories of Feb. 28, 1969, and those of other sailors who were there.
Rood hasn't spoken of the events of that day in 35 years, but he wrote that "Kerry's critics, armed with stories I know to be untrue, have charged that [Kerry's] accounts of what happened were overblown. [They've] taken pains to say they're not trying to cast doubts on the merit of what others did, but their version of events has splashed doubt on all of us. It's gotten harder and harder for those of us who were there to listen to accounts we know to be untrue, especially when they come from people who were not there."
The Tribune article talked of Feb. 28, 1969, as a day of adherence to procedure and a quiet type of bravery and valor-one that the men of the River Patrol showed at all times. It also treated the events surrounding Kerry's shooting of an armed Vietcong soldier immediately after one of the day's ambushes-calling the incident necessary and life-saving.
Cueva's memories are consistent with Rood's. He remembers the ambushes-and the boats charging directly into them. He says the tactic worked well. Every man survived that day.
He speaks of Kerry as a man of honor, integrity and quick decision-a natural leader who earned the respect of his men. The outfit, he says, was both family-like and serious.
"We were all from good families. We all had good foundations," he says. "We were successful people over there and we've been successful over here."
The men got along and worked well together, he says, but the weight of the danger they faced everyday was always on their shoulders. It was an ever-present anxiety, a pressure that never went away.
"The next firefight could come at any second," he says. "We were always expecting it. The worrying only stops once the firing starts. Then you just shoot it out-you don't have time to worry about anything; you're too busy. You do whatever you have to do to suppress enemy fire or get out of there."
And enemy aggression was ever present.
Firefights were a daily occurrence, Cueva says. With loud and powerful twin 12-cylinder engines, the boats were prime targets for Vietcong fighters. The sound of the engines announced their presence well in advance, and the 5,000 miles of river they patrolled were lined with thick vegetation, ideal cover for snipers and ambushers. What's more, many of their missions took them into hostile and enemy-controlled territory. Carrying ground troops, Special Forces and mercenaries upstream, Cueva says, they often didn't know where they were going or why they were going there.
And down time wasn't always a reprieve.
"On the days we saw combat, the anxiety was worse when we got off the river" and threat levels diminished, Cueva says. "Then you had time to think about all that happened, and about guys who'd been hit and got Medivaced out, or the guys who died. A cool breeze would come by and you'd get goose bumps. Then you'd think about Joe, who wouldn't be going home and you'd wonder, "Why him? Why am I still here?' The chaplain would just tell us they'd taken the next step to a place we're all going."
This past summer Cueva received a phone call from another vet who convinced him to speak about events as he'd seen them. He later agreed to go on air with San Diego radio personality and Latino activist Enrique Morones. A day after that he met with reporters from Mexico City's La Jornada newspaper and CityBeat.
"His other medals, I don't know, I can't talk about them," Cueva says of Kerry. "I only served with him for four months. But I was there on Feb. 28, 1969, and I know it was a bad day; and that we all deserve the [commendations] we got."
Cueva talks of friends who died during his time in Vietnam, and others who were badly wounded, with a calm and even voice. He becomes emotional only when asked about those questioning Kerry's actions-and by extension the actions of the other 17 men aboard PCFs 23, 43 and 94.
"After we gave so much over there," he says, "how could they question us? People that weren't even there."
The political controversy over Kerry's service and his subsequent protests of what he says were American war crimes have driven an uneasy tension between swift boat vets who until now have shared the bond of combat survival. Cueva is acutely aware of the experiences and sensibilities of other vets and respects every man's opinion. He pains himself to avoid statements that might offend those who served with him, but is transparent about his admiration for Kerry.
"I want to be clear about one thing," he says. "I volunteered for military service. I did not volunteer to go to Vietnam. My country called and I answered the call-I went and did my duty, without asking questions. But John Kerry did volunteer to go to Vietnam. He had a good education; he could've avoided going, but still he went."
When asked about revelations that senior U.S. officials knew before 1970 that Vietnam was not a winnable war, Cueva shrugs his shoulders.
"I did what I was asked to do," he says. "I did my duty. that's all I can say."
He says he was aware of Kerry's work with Vietnam Veterans Against the War and that Kerry's protest work didn't bother him.
"What I ask is this," Cueva says. "How many more people would have died if people like him didn't speak up?"
As the death count continues to mount in Iraq, Cueva says he sees eerie parallels to the country's posture in Vietnam-namely that young men and women may be dying for what will eventually be deemed a mistake, while politicians look for a way out.
"I'm very patriotic," Cueva says. "I'm proud of serving my country. I don't regret any of it. And I support our troops 100 percent. I'm so proud of all the young men and women [serving] in Iraq. But I don't support the war.... I don't think it's unpatriotic to question something you don't agree with.
Donation information for the Vietnam Unit Memorial Monument and river boats display on Coronado's Naval Amphibious Base can be found at www.vummf.org or by calling (619) 464-4047.