A Florida veteran's search for the family of a Brentwood brother-in-arms has ended successfully and rekindled fond memories of a young life snuffed out more than 40 years ago in Vietnam.
Robert Sirop, a 100-percent disabled veteran of two tours in Vietnam, discovered the name Armando Villa on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. while trying to locate another veteran with the same last name. He made a rubbing and took pictures of Armando's name, and when later research showed Villa had been a resident of Brentwood, he contacted the Press to see if current members of the family were still around.
Coincidentally, Villa and Sirop were both members of the 25th Infantry Division, and although the two never met, Sirop felt compelled to send what he'd gathered to Villa's family.
"He was my brother," Sirop said this week. "I felt like I owed it to him to find his family. I think it was ordained by God."
When an article about Sirop's search appeared in the July 4 edition of the Press, it was spotted by Carol Vasquez, a niece of 90-year-old Blas Franco of Brentwood. Franco was also Villa's uncle, and a few calls later, Sirop was on a tearful phone call with Art Villa, Armando's brother in Texas.
"I was numb when he called," Villa said. "It's been 41 years."
Villa said that every year when Ysleta High School in El Paso let out for the summer, he and Armando would hop aboard a train and head for Brentwood. They'd spend the summer working the fields, staying with Franco in the same Bramhall Street house he still lives in. When summer ended, the boys would head back to Texas and another year of school.
But once he graduated, Art said, Armando decided to stay in Brentwood. He attended DVC and kept working the farms for about a year, until it got to be too much. He then decided to join the Army, and let the GI Bill pay for his schooling once he got out.
"The last time I saw him was the night before he left," said Art. "We slept in the same room, and I woke up and saw he wasn't there. I found him sitting alone in the dark in the living room; he said he couldn't sleep. He said, 'I don't want to be a hero; I just want to do my job, come home and go to college.' I told him he would be just fine."
But three months into his deployment, it all came to a sudden end for the 19-year-old Villa. An entry on the unit's Web site was posted in 2000 by Ed Doc Gerson, who was the medic who attended Villa on July 15, 1967 when their unit came under severe machine gun and small arms fire. Villa, carrying machine gun ammo, and machine gunner Dan Archer, were killed.
"I did the best I could for Armando, but his wound was too deep," Gerson wrote. "He was put on a stretcher and hoisted up from beneath a triple canopy of mountain growth into a CH47 helicopter. We heard later he didn't survive. God bless him; that was one of the nicest dudes I ever met."
Art Villa said his brother was good-hearted, the comedian of the family who kept those around him in stitches with his impressions of just about anyone. He was a good athlete, loved the Red Sox, and had an interest in art.
"He was a good person," said Elma Gillio, a cousin of Armando, who now helps look after Franco. "Children would always gather around him. He was very loving. I can't imagine him picking up a gun to kill someone."
Franco said it was unfortunate that his nephew never got a chance to see a lot of the world around him, partly because he'd grown up on farms.
"I feel sorry he lost his life before he could see the city," he said.
Pfc. Armando Villa was buried July 22, 1967 in the Ft. Bliss National Cemetery in Texas. A winner of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, he was laid to rest with full military honors.
Gillio said the call from Sirop brought back memories both painful and enjoyable. This week family members gathered at the Franco house to remember Mando once again.
"It (Sirop's call) brought all good stories about Mando back," Gillio said. "It was good hearing them again."
She also said she looked forward to receiving the mementos from Sirop. "It was very nice of him to reach out and go to that extent," she said.
But Sirop looks at his actions not as something nice, but something that was his duty. Vietnam veterans had a rough time of it coming home, he said, which was particularly inexcusable for those who were killed. "I simply wanted to see justice done," he said.