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The Daily



10-28-03: Soldier and medallion reunited


For most military veterans, a walk down memory lane can be a long, painful trek, filled with images that stir deep emotion even decades later.
And, for just that reason, U.S. Marine Corp veteran Juan Rodriguez didn’t notice right away that a small medal was missing from the heap of memorabilia he brought home from Vietnam more than 35 years ago.
“I used to look at the items once in a while, but not too often. I purposely keep them up high so I didn’t have to see them every day,” said the 56-year-old Celina man.
But the purple heart badge, trimmed in gold and bearing the bust of General George Washington, wasn’t just any medal. It was the Purple Heart, one of two Rodriguez received for bravery during the war.
The Purple Heart was established during the Revolutionary War by George Washington on Aug. 7, 1782. One of the highest military decorations, it is awarded to U.S. soldiers wounded or killed in the line of duty.
Rodriguez’ entered the military one year after graduating from Celina High School in 1966.
“I joined the Marines on my birthday, Sept. 28. It wasn’t meant that way, it just happened,” said Rodriguez, his long, silver hair blowing in the breeze as he spoke one afternoon recently near Grand Lake St. Marys. “The Army recruiters were after me. They even came knocking on my door.”
The draft was on and Rodriguez — a healthy, young man — would soon face Uncle Sam’s call, and he knew it. But it wasn’t the Army who would get him.
“There was something about the Marine Corp. I just loved the uniform,” he said smiling.
The enticing uniform meant little that September day in 1967, just one month after arriving in Vietnam. The small-town kid got a taste of war he wasn’t prepared for.
“We were on a search and destroy mission, just looking for trouble, and we got ambushed in a frontal assault,” he said, choking back the emotions as he spoke. “A lot of my friends died that day.”
The sound of machine guns, mortar fire and rockets still echo fresh in his head, he said, like it was yesterday. “It was like going through hell,” he added.
As he and another soldier tried to drag an injured comrade to safety, he saw a mortar round coming at them, “like a little bomb on the horizon.” Rodriguez fell back as shrapnel pierced his right arm and exited out his elbow. The other Marine who was assisting in the rescue, died in his arms.
Rodriguez spent 30 days in a makeshift hospital before heading back to the front lines. But just one month before concluding his 13-month tour of duty, he again was struck by enemy fire, this time in his left arm.
“It was a Sunday, and we were taking it easy. God, did we get caught off guard,” he said.
Bareback with a cigarette clenched between his lips, he dove into a nearby trench as the sound of rocket fire filled the air. But before he could safely take cover, he was hit.
He arrived back home to his family, including 16 brothers and sisters, proudly displaying two Purple Hearts and several other medals and awards. His arms would forever bare scars and bouts of numbness from nerve damage.
For a while, he lived at his parent’s farmhouse on Ohio 118 north of Celina. Musically inclined, he spent his spare time playing drums in several local bands. Later he married Cambodian native, Hgech, and fathered six children — the youngest just 3 years old now.
He moved his family twice before settling in a home just off Main Street in Celina. Knowing how infrequently he rummaged through his war memorabilia, the Badge of Military Merit could have escaped his possession years ago, he figured. It was likely lost forever, or so he thought.
In the late ’80s, the Rodriguez family farmhouse was bought by Celina resident Kent Hinton, who soon began a thorough remodeling project. One afternoon, Hinton’s sons, Jeremy and Josh, were snooping around a crawl space when they came upon a mysterious blue, 5-inch-by 7-inch metal case.
“We were looking through boxes of books and old junk, and there it was,” said Jeremy Hinton, now 26. “We flipped up the lid and saw the medal. We knew right away it wasn’t junk.”
The boys showed their father the find. Kent Hinton read the name on the military document inside, but didn’t think Juan Rodriguez was living in the area anymore. He sat the case on a shelf in the same house it had came to following Vietnam, “and didn’t think much more about it,” he said.
But as fate would have it, the paths of the Rodriguez and Hinton families would cross 15 years later. Juan Rodriguez’ nephew, Ryan Rodriguez, 22, began performing as lead singer in the local band “Tangent,” with Jeremy Hinton on guitar.
One night when the elder Rodriguez showed up to help his nephew during a gig, the Hinton’s realized they found the hero they’d been waiting for. Two weeks ago, Rodriguez and his Purple Heart were reunited.
“The medals both mean a lot to me. I fought for my country and I don’t regret one minute of it. If they’d take me today, I’d go,” he said.
As for the medal, it’s now safely tucked away, he said.
Just like Juan’s memories.


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