This is long and seems daunting, I know, but I think you will appreciate it and find it inspiring if you take the time to read it.
‘A Marine Three Times Dead’
On a sunny but chilly morning in March a bus from Collingdale, PA loaded with veterans, friends and supporters helped Chuck ‘Graves’ Roth meet up with Gil Hernandez from Elko, NV. Two Marines not knowing if each other were still alive reunited for the first time in 42 years at ‘The Wall’.
The following is their story as told by Linda Reilly Times Correspondent of how this miracle came about.
Washington, D.C. — A Vietnam veteran, pronounced dead three times in a combat zone in 1968, came face to face this week at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall with the man who miraculously saved his life.
Gil Hernandez, 63, of Elko, Nev., knew he died twice, but he didn’t learn until last September that another Marine was responsible for giving him the medical care that revived him 43 years ago. Charles “Graves” Roth, 62, of Collingdale, and Hernandez arranged to meet in March at The Wall in D.C. for a reunion.
“I saw him three times when he was dead, but he never saw me,” Roth said, noting the pair had spoken on the phone and exchanged letters after learning in September that Hernandez was alive.
Forty-nine people, primarily members of Darby VFW Post 598 and Upper Darby Marine Corps League Detachment 884, and family members, accompanied Roth on a bus for the reunion.
“I’d spoken to (Hernandez) a few times on the phone and wrote him a letter,” Roth said. “I invited 49 people because I wanted to give Gil a welcome home. The meeting at the Vietnam Wall was something that needed to be shared."
"Normally, I try to make it down (to The Wall) in February to acknowledge the Tet Offensive and my best friend, Robert L. Stanek, at panel 37E, line 28. I didn’t want to talk to Gil at any other place. This time, it was more about wanting it to be a good day for many of the Vietnam vets who have never been to the Wall.”
At The Wall, Hernandez and Roth greeted each other and hugged. Hernandez removed his jacket and said, “I just wanted you to see I’m in pretty good shape. It’s amazing it’s taken us this long to meet and that both of us are still alive. It’s God’s will."
"I’m one of those that came back alive. I had a death certificate. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for ‘Graves.’’ Roth disputed the acclamation.
“I’m no hero,” Roth said. “I’m a Marine. It’s what we do. The heroes are on that wall. I didn’t save his life. Four of us carried him back and forth. The guy who did the surgery saved his life. I was just doing a day’s work in a bad place.”
Were it not for Roth, Hernandez would have been fingerprinted and bagged for burial like the other bodies brought to the Graves Registration at Dong Ha, a site closest to the DMZ.
Roth, assigned to the Graves Registration during his second tour of duty after serving in combat several years, vividly recalls April 25, 1968. Hernandez, on the other hand, has no recollection of Roth’s intercession, since he was unconscious and critically wounded with life-threatening injuries, including a collapsed lung, broken bones and kidney and liver damage due to shrapnel from charges and grenades blowing up the tank he was riding on.
“To me, it was like a dream,” Hernandez said. “I remember going into D-Med (Delta-Medical triage) one time.”
Last September, the dream became reality after receiving a phone call from Neil McCrossen of Springfield, who read about Hernandez in a VFW magazine and urged him to contact Roth. “Neil put this whole thing together,” Roth said.
Roth remembers working side-by-side with another Marine, Bob Boutwell, fingerprinting and bagging the dead.
“The only reason I noticed Hernandez is because he was the only one moving,” Roth said. “There were so many bodies that day, we couldn’t even use the slabs. The bodies were lined up on the floor. Sometimes, a body does move in the morgue, from rigor mortis, but something in his stomach moved.
I said, ‘dude, I think he moved.’ Then I saw him twitch again. I pulled his arms and hit him a couple of times.”
Roth and Boutwell took Hernandez back to triage and informed doctors of their suspicions saying, “This guy’s still alive.”
According to Roth, he returned to working on bodies, and Hernandez was brought back out and dropped in the same place.
“They said, ‘he’s dead now,’” Roth said. “I looked at him and had a bad feeling. That’s when I hit his chest three times. I hit him hard and blood came out of all the bullet wounds, and again he went back to triage.
“I’m saying, ‘this guy’s moving.’ We were (ticked). Things were pretty hectic. We were overloaded with bodies and they were overloaded with wounded. It was busy that day. I heard later he was still living, but only knew his name was Hernandez. I had no idea where he was from.”
Hernandez says his name would be on the Vietnam Wall were it not for Roth, his own mother’s prayers and God.
He remembers being shipped to Japan for treatment, rather than stateside, due to the severe injuries before returning home for a yearlong recuperation.
“I was told I would never walk, and you can see I’m walking,” Hernandez said. “I lost a toe, and my shoes are two sizes shorter, but I can still walk and I can run, but not very far. I wanted to die. I told the doctor it hurts too much, and he said, ‘it hurts until you get better.’”
Roth talked of having flashbacks when someone asked them to remove their hats. “When you take your helmet or hat off, you have helmet hair,” Roth said. “When I looked at him, I went right back to the Vietnam experience. It was very, very overwhelming.
The whole experience, meeting him at The Wall, was spiritual. I’d always hoped he made it. It was the only good thing about Vietnam. Until I met him and shook his hand, I didn’t know if it was a dream or that it really happened and to see that he actually made it.”
Roth worked in Graves Registration in 1967 and 1968. “I went to Graves to identify my two friends and was asked to help because bodies were laying out in the field and none of the others assigned were field trained,” Roth said.
“I went from search and recovery in ’67 and then to Graves Registration and bagging bodies.” According to Roth, the 2,700 dead included Americans, Australians, Koreans, ARVN’s (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) and civilians.
Particularly vivid in Roth’s mind were two dead children who bring tears to his eyes, a 14-year-old girl struck by a truck on her bike and a 2-year-old boy.
Not surprisingly, Roth and Hernandez shared parallel civilian-life experiences after honorable discharge from the Corps, both suffering and receiving treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and devoting their efforts to veterans’ issues.
Hernandez, a member and past commandant of VFW Post 2350 in his hometown, represents veterans in Nevada and lobbies in Washington, D.C., crusading for their rights.
“All I remember is how I was treated when I came home,” Hernandez said. “People were hollering at me. I want to make sure veterans are not treated like us. I take pride in Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. I will help the vets until the day I die. Only 1 percent of Americans give a crap. We can’t let the veterans down.”
Roth, a member of Darby VFW 598, which was founded by his grandfather, has escorted veterans’ homecomings with the Vietnam Vets and Leatherneck Motorcycle Clubs and supports outreach groups for Iraq and Afghanistan vets.
Hernandez and Roth exchanged patches and commemorative coins and promised to keep in touch.
“It’s not the end, it’s the beginning,” Roth said. At the conclusion of the reunion, the entire group offered a brief prayer and placed wreaths in honor of Stanek and all those named on The Wall.
Follow the link to see the photos of the reunion:
Patrick J. Hughes "Welcome Home Veterans"