Editor’s Note: The following is an article I wrote for the VVA magazine that ran shortly before the publication of my memoir AFTER THE FLAG HAS BEEN FOLDED (Wm. Morrow). While working on that memoir, I searched for the men who served with my father. One of those I searched diligently for was Pablo Gallegos, the man who signed my father’s death certificate after identifying his body.
This is the story of how Pablo and I finally connected. Over the years, I traveled numerous time to visit Pablo and his wife Maria, and together, we made a cross-country trip from California to Washington, D.C., along with two very well-loved dogs, and another dear friend Terry McGregor who also lost his dad in Vietnam.
Pablo and I last spoke earlier this year, shortly before the pandemic erupted.
Pablo died on Sunday, the result of a massive heart attack. Needless to say, his family is devastated. I spoke with Maria. We reminisced about our many visits together and our cross-country trip. Pablo was the funniest, kindest soul. I treasured our friendship, a rare gift. He is the second veteran who served alongside Dad that has died in the past couple of months. I know I am not alone when I say 2020 has been the harshest of years.
By Karen Spears Zacharias
I recognized Pablo Gallegos’ signature long before I ever saw his face. I’d read it innumerable times as I rifled through my father’s personnel file. Gallegos’ name was scribbled on the Statement of Recognition. His signature confirmed that the lifeless body before him was indeed that of Staff Sgt. David Paul Spears, my father. It was dated July 24, 1966. Pablo remembers that day better than he cares to. Like my father, Gallegos served with the 25th Infantry Division, 3rd Brigade, 2nd Battalion, 9th Artillery.
The unit was shipped to Vietnam in December 1965. My father, 35, was Chief of Smoke for Bravo Battery. Gallegos, 19, was a medic with Headquarters Battery. He worked in Pleiku with the 106th MedVac Hospital. Often he was in the field, less than a mile away from where the infantry and artillery were based. That day the company was in the Ia Drang Valley. A mortar round exploded outside my father’s tent at 5:30 a.m. Fiery shrapnel pierced my father’s back, nicked his lung, and pushed his gut through an exit wound. He cried out for help.
The guys in the field did the best they could but the evacuation helicopter was grounded by bad weather. It would be 10:00 a.m. or later before a Medevac was sent in to retrieve my father. By then, all his life’s blood had bled out. Without dog tags to identify this soldier, the morgue folks searched for an eyewitness who knew this Sergeant, this father of three, this husband of one.
“They had me come over to identify him,” Pablo Gallegos recalled. “I remember someone there, in the field morgue, asking me, ‘Do you recognize this man? Do you know who he is?’ ”
“Yeah,” he answered. “I know him.”
“Are you sure it’s Sgt. Spears?” the voice asked again.
“Yeah, I’m sure,” Gallegos replied.
My father’s death haunts Pablo Gallegos. He cannot tell this story without shedding sorrowful tears. Since that day, he has done constructive things with his life. He married, fathered five children, and served 30 years with the U.S. Postal Service. When the opportunity arose, he took time to visit the Moving Wall and honor fallen warriors. He wondered about the families left behind.
“It’s been on my mind for the past 37 years,” Pablo said.
Five years ago, Gallegos joined the Run for the Wall. Participants strive to promote healing among Vietnam veterans, families, and friends by honoring the memory of those killed in action and calling for a full accounting of those still missing in action. Every year before Memorial Day, members journey via motorcycle from the West Coast to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.Gallegos has never made the entire trip. This year he traveled as far as Cimarron, New Mexico, a 2,000-mile roundtrip from his home in Colton, California.
Shortly before he set out on the trail in May 2003, he found me. I’d been searching for the men who had served alongside my father. I only had a few names. Sgt. Erwin Naylor and Sgt. Claude Colley were two of my father’s good friends. Colley was from Alabama and Naylor was from the Carolinas. In 1996, I discovered that both men had died of cancer, believed to be the result of Agent Orange exposure.
In 2001, I tracked down John Osborne, one of my father’s commanding officers, in Kentucky. He had never heard of Pablo Gallegos. Later, I found a roster of the men who served in Bravo Company. Pablo Gallegos’ name wasn’t on it. I couldn’t figure out who this man was or how he came to be the one who identified my deceased father by his facial features.
In November 2002, I made my first trip to The Wall. I took with me a picture of my father posed before Vietnam’s Dragon Mountain. I wore that picture around my neck hoping to find anyone who might have served with my father.Lots of veterans approached me. None of them knew Dad. I returned home convinced that the only man who still remembered my father was Capt. John Osborne. But as he put it, “That was another life ago.”
Perhaps for some, but not for the sons and daughters who continue to miss our fathers.
Pablo Gallegos was unaware I was looking for him when he came in search of me. We both believe God brought our paths together. On May 1, Gallegos was surfing the web. He intended to check out the route for the Run for the Wall. But when he initiated the search engine, The Virtual Wall www.virtualwall.org popped up. He typed in Sgt. Spears’ name. A memorial page appeared. On it were several tributes to my father and a contact number.
Gallegos wrote the number down and looked at the clock. It was midnight.He told his wife, Maria, that he’d found Sgt. Spears’ daughter. He asked her, “Do you think I should call her? What if she thinks I’m some kind of fool? What should I do?”
“Call her,” his wife said. “But wait until morning.”
Gallegos tossed and turned all night long. “I kept waking up, checking my watch. It was too early to call. I was very nervous, scared. I couldn’t believe I’d found you after 37 years,” he said.
Mostly, he was worried how I would react.
“I was worried you’d think I was some quack. I was scared about how this would affect you,” Gallegos told me. “I wondered if you had put this all behind you. If you had gone on with your life. Some people put it behind them and never want to talk about it again. I didn’t want to open up old wounds for you.”
Even so, he felt like he was going to burst inside if he didn’t make the call. “I needed to make the call for me. For the satisfaction of knowing what happened to Sgt. Spears’ family. This was the opportunity to share my memory of Sgt. Spears with someone.”
Gallegos was willing to risk that maybe I wouldn’t want to talk about my dad. The phone rang around 8:00 a.m. on May 2. The man on the other end asked to speak to Karen Spears.
“I’m sorry,” he said, unable to speak for his tears.”I’m Pablo,” he said.
“Pablo Gallegos?” I uttered, dumbfounded.
“Yes,” he said. “I knew your father.”
“I know,” I said. “I’ve been looking for you.”
Since then, several other men who served with my father have contacted me. Doug Johnson of Nebraska found me the same way Gallegos did. Johnson served as the assistant gunner under Sgt. Spears. His first correspondence showed up in my e-mail box on May 3, 2003 – the day after Gallegos’ first phone call. Doug Johnson didn’t know Gallegos and was unaware that I had been searching for him, too.
“I’ve been wondering about Sgt. Spears’ children for a long time. I was with him in Vietnam in the same gun section. He was quite the guy. When we did something it was done the best. Our gun pit was the sharpest. Our personal bunker the best,” Doug Johnson wrote. He knew the names of the other men in the photo I had of my father.”The people in the picture are Andrew V. Melick, Jr., from California and Dave B. McIntyre from New York,” he said. “I never in my wildest dream ever thought I would get in contact with any of Sgt. Spears’ children.”
Pablo Gallegos and I finally met face-to-face on August 1 at the Southern California Chapter of Sons and Daughters in Touch campout. I’d called him and asked a special favor. My husband, Tim, and I wanted to renew our wedding vows. We’d arranged to do this with the help of our SDIT friends.
“Would you be willing to come and give me away at the ceremony?” I asked.
“I’d be honored,” he said.
Jeanette Chervony of California officiated the ceremony at Hurkey Creek State Park. Terry McGregor of California stood up for my husband and Patty Lee of California and Kathy Webb of Texas served as my matrons of honor.As a crowd of onlookers watched, Pablo Gallegos, wearing his black leather Run for the Wall vest with the Tropic Lightning patch, walked me over a path strewn with pine needles. Tim stood near a wooden stage decorated with toilet paper, smiling.
We all laughed.
It was a comfortable, hearty laughter. The kind common among friends who’ve shared deep sorrows and great joys.