50 years later, Greeley family still grieves loss of husband, father in Vietnam War
For the Greeley Tribune
All in the family
Jacinto (Jack) Moreno, the older brother of Ricardo, played a special role in military history, himself.
Jacinto was 12 years older than Ricardo, and served in World War II. In that war, he earned a number of special medals, including the Bronze Star for heroism. The problem was, he was never awarded the medals he’d earned.
“After the war, they were giving out medals,” said his son, Jack Moreno Jr. “And when they got to dad, they told him he could buy his medals from a military store when he got back home to Greeley. Dad was shocked and told them ‘To hell with your medals,’ and left.”
It was 55 years later, with the help of Jack Sr.’s daughter, Yolanda Huff, that he was able to receive his medals he’d earned in the war. He’d fought with the 83rd Infantry Division, in the European Theater: the Battle of the Bulge, the Ardennes Forest, the Rhineland, and in the final push toward Berlin, he was captured and briefly held as a P.O.W. After the war, he came home to Greeley, without his medals.
“I worked at the hospital several years ago,” Huff said, “and some people there were talking about the World War II vets. I told them about my dad, and they gave me the name of Bill Holtfort.”
Holtfort, retired military and a Greeley businessman, went to work on the medals. He received the help of Congressman Wayne Allard, and they were able to get Jack’s seven medals, including the Bronze Star.
After the war, Jack returned to Greeley, where he worked on farms and for Flatiron Paving and Bliss Produce. He died in 2010 at 84 years old, and is buried at Lynn Grove Cemetery, not far from his little brother’s grave.
A source of strength
It was a letter to the Tribune that launched the story of Ricardo Moreno, the first Greeley soldier to die in Vietnam.
William Molony has never been to Greeley and lived most of his life in Illinois. As he tells the story, he grew up on the Chicago streets, never fished or hunted or did anything in the country, when he was drafted. Six months later, he was in Vietnam, fighting a war.
He has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and was a victim of Agent Orange, but he has been able to put much of that behind him by working hard. “After I retired, the memories started coming back. The doctors said he has “survival guilt,” after making it through the war alive, when so many others died.
It was therapy to write to the newspaper about his friend Ricardo Moreno.
“Sergeant Moreno was one of the men in our company that regularly attended Catholic Mass whenever the Catholic chaplain was in our area,” Molony wrote.
“I got somewhat acquainted with Sgt. Moreno while walking to and from Mass. He was a true Catholic gentleman that didn’t use the rough language that was so common among the men in our company. He was a source of strength for me during a very difficult time in my life, and I looked forward to seeing him at Mass.”
Molony concluded with Moreno’s death: “I lost a good friend that day, and the Moreno family lost their husband and father. After all these years, my memory of this fine man has not diminished; he was one of our very best.”
Fifty years have passed, and Mary Moreno has never forgotten that knock at the door. She’s never forgotten how the sounds of “Taps” touches her heart. She’s never forgotten Ricardo.
And Mary never remarried after her Ricardo was killed in Vietnam, the first soldier from Greeley killed in that war. Sunday, May 29 marked the 50th anniversary of his death.
Sgt. Moreno was a veteran soldier, four years as a Marine, then he joined the Army, and the family was together at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. One day, Mary overheard her husband talking with a friend. The friend said “Have you told her yet?” and Ricardo said “No.”
“I asked him later what he hadn’t told me,” Mary said this week, at her daughter’s home in Greeley, tears brimming her eyes. “He wanted to wait until after Christmas to tell me … he had to go to Vietnam.”
Ricardo shipped out of Hawaii on Jan. 8, and Mary and their daughters returned to Greeley, where they moved in with her parents. “I was planning to be reunited with him after Vietnam,” Mary said, tears coming stronger. “I never believed in a permanent separation.”
But that’s what it was. They wrote many letters back and forth. Every day each of them would write the other, but then, in May 1966, Ricardo wrote that the letters wouldn’t be coming as often because he was being moved into an area “that is more secure.”
What the sergeant didn’t tell his wife was that it was a battle zone, and one of the worst in the Vietnam War.
Not long after his letter, and just 10 days after the couple’s anniversary, Mary was called by Ricardo’s father in Kersey, asking her to come pick him up and bring him to Greeley. She did that, and brought him to her parents’ home.
“I remember he reached into his shirt pocket and brought out a piece of paper,” Mary said. “It was a telegram, telling him that his son had been wounded in battle.”
Then came the knock on the door. Two Weld County Sheriff’s deputies were there, and handed Mary a telegram stating the same, “Your husband has been wounded in battle.”
They all prayed. They cried. Mary put the girls to bed that night and told them they could pray for daddy. And 3-year-old Audrey said, “Daddy is sleeping.”
They would learn later that a helicopter Ricardo was on came under fire and was forced to land, as he got out, he was hit by rifle fire and went down. He was first taken to a field hospital, then to another hospital because of the severity of his wounds.
A friend wrote later, “I thought he was going to be all right. He talked to me like nothing had happened. He talked to a priest and acted like he wasn’t in great pain.”
The telegrams were sent to his family. He had been wounded. Ricardo would die later that day. The second telegrams were sent, and the soldiers were assigned to take the news to Ricardo’s family in Greeley.
It was two days later that the other “knock on the door” came. It was two military men this time, to tell Mary and her family that Ricardo had been killed in action.
Things began happening quickly after that. A story appeared in The Tribune, telling of the loss of the Greeley soldier. Letters and calls came pouring in to Mary and her family.
The Moreno family served its country well. Five brothers — Jacinto, Ricardo, Juventino, Ernesto and Lorenzo — all served in the military. Lorenzo went to Vietnam, and came home safe.
Within a few days, the Moreno family was notified that Ricardo’s body was being shipped home.
More condolence letters came: from President Lyndon Johnson, Gen. William Westmorland, Secretary of the Army Stanley Resor.
Letters from Ricardo’s fellow soldiers and friends, and one letter was found with Ricardo’s belongings. It had a message scrawled across the back of the envelope: “Send only in case of death.” It was a letter to Mary from Ricardo, telling her how sorry he was, how much he loved her and their daughters, how they should go on with their lives.
On June 9, 1966, Ricardo was buried with a full military ceremony at Linn Grove Cemetery in east Greeley. “The casket had a glass cover so we could tell he was in there,” Mary said. “They wouldn’t let me touch him, but I asked them to place a rosary in the coffin. I had to confirm it was really my husband.”
Then the family had to go on with their lives. “The most difficult thing for me was the realization that I was a single parent,” Mary said. “I was a woman without a spouse. The girls didn’t have a daddy.”
Because they were only 3 and 1 year old, Audrey and Rebecca don’t remember their dad. They said they’ve read all the letters, and are proud he talked about his love for them so much.
Mary went on, a widow and single mother at 25, and she attended Aims Community College and classes at the University of Northern Colorado, got jobs with the Employment Services of Weld County and Head Start, and retired after 33 years. She’s been homeschooling three of her granddaughters, and last weekend, one graduated from high school.
“We’re very proud of mom and what she did for us,” said her daughter, Audrey Moreno. “She became both our mother and father.”
And, there are memories. “I can’t watch military movies anymore. It’s tough to hear ‘Taps’ played, even on TV,” Mary said. “It just brings back that day at the cemetery. If I hear a helicopter, the beating is like my heart beating. I can’t imagine landing under gunfire.”
But the family goes on, remembering the good things about Ricardo. Reading the letters again. Talking of the good memories. “It would have been much more difficult without our faith,” Mary said. “And our church, Our Lady of Peace.”
The mother and daughters would like someday to go to Washington, D.C. and find the Vietnam Wall.
Because there, on Panel 7E, line 119, cut deep into the stone: “Sgt. Ricardo Leon Moreno.” ❖