Valley Vietnam Veterans get closure from Honor Flight trip

Martin Petrosian is greeted by the public at the Arlington National Cemetery during the 25th Central Valley Honor Flight. (Photo Gabe Camarillo)

May 26, 2023 – This Memorial Day weekend, Martin Petrosian and Ron Rocha will have a little more peace of mind, knowing that they reconnected with their fallen brothers in combat 55 years later.

The two Vietnam Veterans and Purple Heart recipients were part of the latest Central Valley Honor Flight, which took 63 veterans from across six San Joaquin Valley counties to Washington DC to visit their memorials, many of whom had never visited them before.

On the final day of the Honor Flight, Petrosian gazed through his dark sunglasses at the reflective wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, searching the endless columns of names for those that he knew.

“It’s been 50 years,” Petrosian said. “It’s kind of like a closure thing.”

The Fresno native looked for four friends he scratched on a piece of paper. He recounted the stories of two of them, whom he dubbed “Ronald and Donald.” 

Back in Vietnam in 1966, they were dropped off in a bunker while the Marine rifle unit, headed by Petrosian as the point man, made its way out for an ambush.

He still remembers their faces, how excited they were about having a seemingly secure, barbed wire fortress.

“God, they’re lucky,” he remembers thinking. “They got that bunker! I wish I was in that bunker.”

They returned to the bunker the next morning, only to find it destroyed by an enemy grenade and both men dead.

Another name Petrosian searched for on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall was DC George. They served a four-week operation together in December of 1966. Petrosian was medevaced out of the operation on Christmas with a bad case of trench foot. His feet, wet from the miles upon miles of walking in the mud, began to bleed after rubbing against his boots constantly.

Three days after Christmas, he received notice that his good friend DC was killed. 

“That’s where I found out – in the field hospital, because of my feet,” Petrosian said. “Otherwise, I would’ve still been out there with them.”

That wasn’t the first close encounter with death that Petrosian had. A few months later, back with his rifle unit, he prepared for a momentary break from the bloodshed. The Tet holiday landed on February 8, 1967. It typically meant ceasefire in the conflict. 

Petrosian walked point on a 14-man rifle team that day, all of whom were told not to shoot at the enemy unless they shoot at you first. About half an hour after receiving that command, they were attacked.

“We obeyed the ceasefire, but you can’t trust the ceasefire,” he said, grimly.

Gunshots to both legs brought him to the ground. Other soldiers implored him to stay there, shouting, “Play dead, Marty, play dead.”

Instead, he crawled to safety and momentarily paused to fire back at the enemy.

“I didn’t want to lay there and let the guy finish me off,” he said. “I thought I was going to die. If I wouldn’t have calmed down, they would’ve got me.”

He was rescued by a helicopter and recovered from a broken femur for nine months. A few months into his hospital stay, he learned another close friend, Jerry Medcalf, passed away. Medcalf’s name was the last of the four that Petrosian traced off the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall on the final day of the Honor Flight.

Ron Rocha (in red) takes a rest at the World War II Memorial during the Central Valley Honor Flight. Rocha’s father was a World War II veteran. (Photo Gabe Camarillo)

About a hundred meters down the wall, another Veteran Marine was doing some searching of his own. Rocha marked 12 names he lost on his 19th birthday: August 23, 1969.

That day, he was five men behind the point man, carrying his M60 machine gun among a group of 14 soldiers marching along the DMZ. There had actually been an ambush the night before, possibly a warning sign of what was to come.

As they walked along the DMZ, there was movement up ahead. It was the North Vietnamese Army.

“We saw them. They saw us – and it just busted loose,” Rocha said. “They snuck up on us. There were over a hundred of them, and they just destroyed us.”

Rocha was shot in his calf, thigh, and groin. An RPG struck the ground below his feet, sending shrapnel into his shoulder. His heart stopped, and he needed to be revived.

In total, all but two from the unit died in the attack. Rocha, now living in Madera, corresponds with the other survivor on their birthdays every year.

They don’t talk about the day they lost their brothers in arms, but they trade the following words: “Feet hitting the ground? Still breathing? Nobody is shooting at you? Same here bro.”

Rocha is especially close with his older brother, who also served in Vietnam. In fact, when Rocha was transported to a hospital ship for bullet removal surgery, his brother flew from where he was stationed in Da Nang to visit him.

His brother also signed him up for the Central Valley Honor Flight in 2018. Rocha wanted to bring his brother along on the trip, but he surpassed the maximum guardian age of 73 by 2023.

The reason Rocha’s brother signed him up for the Honor Flight, though, became obvious at the wall. Rocha wiped tears from his eyes once he found the 12 names he sought after. The totality of what he lost on his 19th birthday hit Rocha at that moment.

“Everyone I served with was my brother,” he said. “I don’t trip about that day at all. I just miss them.

“This is my opportunity to get those names that I need for my closure.”

Gabriel Camarillo has written for the Clovis Roundup since August 2019 and follows high school athletics, Fresno State football and former Clovis Unified student-athletes. Gabe also writes for The Collegian as a staff sports writer and works at One Putt Broadcasting as a board op for 940 ESPN radio.