In August 2019, while sitting in a Mexican restaurant in downtown Santa Fe, New Mexico, something compelled me to research my grandfather, a man neither I nor my mother, Darlinda Velasquez, got to meet before his death in 2001.
I picked up my phone and, armed with the little information I knew about him, began searching. My grandmother knew that he had earned a Purple Heart during his service in Vietnam. That; his name, Francisco Charles; and the fact that he had lived in Albuquerque were all that I had to go on.
I decided to start by looking for a registry of Purple Heart recipients. Surely one existed, I thought. Bingo — a quick Google search led me to the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, with a searchable database of past recipients. I input “Charles F-r-a,” and “Charles, Frank” auto-populated in the search bar. I tapped in on my phone and found two entries for a Vietnam War veteran named Frank Charles Jr. and one award from his home state of New Mexico. This must be him.
From there I typed “Frank Charles Jr.” and “New Mexico” into Google, and his obituary in the Albuquerque Journal was the first result to crop up. Within minutes of starting my search, information flooded in: I knew his surviving relatives (my mom had a half sister and two half brothers!) and where he was buried.
Sante Fe National Cemetery was just a couple of miles from the Airbnb I was staying in.
I texted my mom my discoveries in real time. She asked if I could go to his gravesite and take a picture of his headstone. My mom had never even seen her dad’s face — in person or in a photograph — much less proof of his existence. I owed it to her to document this. I obliged and headed to the cemetery in a Lyft.
It was drizzling when I arrived, and I couldn’t find the entrance. So I hopped a few boulders gating the perimeter, such was my headstrong fidelity to the mission. My gait was somewhere between a walk and a jog as I moved past row after row of graves then found my way to his headstone. I snapped a picture, sent it to my mom and then stood in silence, cogitating before my grandfather’s gravesite as I waited to feel something.
Growing up without knowing war veterans, I didn’t truly appreciate Memorial Day’s significance in the past. Like many Americans, I saw it mostly as a pronouncement of summer’s arrival or a reason for retailers to flog store sales.
But after I learned about my grandfather and his story, the national day of remembrance has become a real time of somber reflection for me. I’m a pacifist by nature, and to find out belatedly that war had wreaked devastation on my family tree is heartbreaking.
At age 54, my grandpa died from complications from diabetes, which he developed after exposure to Agent Orange in the jungles of Vietnam. His experience in the battlefield led to his slow and agonizing death.
His efforts to rescue several of his fellow infantrymen from being bombed in a surprise attack in November 1968, just weeks after President Nixon’s election, earned him a Purple Heart. But no accolade would allow him to shake the trauma of war, certainly. There would be no ticker-tape parades for the soldiers who fought in the deeply unpopular Vietnam War, who were instead jeered and reviled. Many servicemen struggled to reintegrate into society after the war, and my grandfather was no exception.
When he returned home to Albuquerque in the 1970s he was a shell of his former self, no longer the bright-eyed teen who had willingly enlisted in the Army when so many of his peers were being drafted. He came back stateside needing regular insulin shots to manage his diabetes, bearing the terminal pain of shrapnel in his leg and — like so many Vietnam veterans — addicted to heroin.
“He left a sweet boy and came back a very disturbed man,” said Cindy Villegas, my first cousin once removed, of her Tío Pancho. In addition to my mom, Frank had three other children from different mothers. He was unable to be a stable presence in their lives, either, as he was in and out of prison and chemically dependent.
Even though he wasn’t around for her most of her life, his daughter Raquel Bettencourt made peace with him. She remembers his warm personality; he was funny and kind.
“He would have been a great dad if he didn’t go through war or wasn’t hooked on drugs,” Bettencourt said.
Toward the end of his life, Bettencourt housed her father while he was taking methadone to wean himself off of heroin. He was determined, finally, to get clean, she said. But once he did, his health took a turn, and his dialysis treatments became increasingly difficult to bear.
“One day he said, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” Villegas said, recalling Frank’s tearful conversations with his mom and sisters. He went off dialysis and “didn’t last long after that.”
For my mom, these sorrowful discoveries have been tinged with sweetness. She had believed she was unwanted by her father and his family growing up. That wasn’t the case.
In fact, Frank Charles Sr., my great-grandfather, spent some of his waning years looking for my mom in Texas, Villegas told me. Even on his deathbed, he talked about finding “la niña,” my mother. Sadly, he died in April 2019, just months before my trip to Santa Fe.
Though delayed by the pandemic, my mom has now been able to meet her sister Raquel, her cousin Cindy and a few of her aunts — connections she had thought would never happen on the false belief that she had been rejected. She’ll never have a relationship with her father, but she has the closure she didn’t know she needed.
As for me, the experience of finding my grandfather and connecting my mom with her relatives has affirmed my own belief as a journalist that stories matter.
A few weeks ago, my brother described parting with a feeling of contempt he’d felt toward my grandfather for not being there for my mom. Knowing the full story can be healing.
Villegas remembers the hard times her uncle endured but also the afternoons when she and her siblings would play with their loving Tío Pancho and the family’s St. Bernard. However imperfect, his life deserves to be honored, she said.
“I’m grateful for him,” Villegas said. “As hard as it was for him, he went to do a job, but he suffered for it. And that’s what’s hard — knowing he suffered for it.”