By SHELLEY GRIESHOP
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
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
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.