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Tercero never was a medal chaser, nor was he one to spend endless hours at a VFW reliving his war days or trashing "Hanoi" Jane Fonda. And unlike some ex-soldiers, he tended to understate rather than exaggerate his war exploits.
But Tercero's comrades from Vietnam never had forgotten his heroics of that long-ago day. Though their accounts about the events varied — dramatically, in some instances — a common thread would reveal itself.
To quote Riley Cox, an ex-Lurp who also performed heroically that November day and almost died of dreadful wounds suffered there:
"Tony Tercero performed in the finest and noblest manner of any man I have ever seen. As he was scheduled to leave the day after this happened, no one — least of all me — would have blamed him for not placing himself in imminent danger.
"His disregard for his own safety saved the six men that did survive the assault that day, and kept the bodies of our dead from falling into enemy hands."
Tercero's Army pals speak of his moral code, based on a fierce loyalty to the brotherhood. But they also remember him, fondly, as a sly fellow with a touch of larceny in his soul.
"Tony is the sort of person a novelist wishes he could invent," says Miller, the writer and Tercero's former Lurp comrade. "He always was confident and a good talker, but he also talked a lot about moral issues, and he put his life on the line to live up to them. Every culture has its good rogue — the good outlaw, the noble outlaw — though they rarely exist in the natural world. Tony Tercero does exist, and he's always been for real."
In 2001 — 34 years after the mission — some of Tercero's friends in Phoenix put together a packet on his behalf for the Department of the Army requesting an upgrade of his Bronze Star to a Medal of Honor.
But the Army Decorations Board didn't budge.
Working backward, Tercero's supporters asked U.S. Senator John McCain and U.S. Representative Ed Pastor for help. Both wrote letters seeking redress under a new law that required the military to review cases of decorated Latino and Jewish veterans to determine whether any deserved the Medal of Honor.
Nothing positive happened with Tercero's case after the politicians intervened. (New Times knows of only one person, Tibor Rubin, to be awarded the Medal of Honor under the law. Rubin, no relation to the writer of this story, won it in 2005 as a 76-year-old Korean War veteran. According to the Washington Post, he was honored after fellow soldiers wrote affidavits that said "their sergeant was an anti-Semite who gave Rubin dangerous assignments in hopes of getting him killed.")
Months ago, Tony Tercero's oldest of three children, Cyndi Tercero-Sandoval, decided to do something for him, in regard to the medal. Only recently had the 38-year-old mother of two learned about her dad's heroics in Vietnam.
Like many other facets of Tony Tercero's madly imperfect life, his relationship with his daughter has been mercurial. He was absent for much of her childhood — her parents split up when she was hitting her teens.
Tercero-Sandoval says she never stopped loving her father but his inconsistency etched cracks into the relationship.
Things have changed for the better.
Months ago, Tony Tercero, who is 60, resolved to cut way back on his drinking, to hit the gym regularly, and to drop weight. He lost about 30 pounds.
"I'm a work in progress," he says. "Or maybe I'm just a piece of work."
Her father's recent self-help efforts touched Tercero-Sandoval, the dropout programs developer for the Phoenix Union High School District.
"He's very complicated," she says, "but I know he's got a good soul underneath it all. After we got back together and started talking, it hit me that he really did do an amazing thing over there and not for himself. It was for his guys and for his country."
Tercero-Sandoval told him that she wanted to dig into the medal thing. Tercero gave her the go-ahead, though he remains a bit reticent.
"There's my dope-smuggling past to consider," he says. "I wasn't just a nickel-and-dimer. We were flying the shit in, tens of thousands of pounds [of marijuana], for years. We got caught a bunch of times, and even though I was really lucky to escape prison, I did what I did and it's public record."
Tony Tercero faced at least 11 state and federal indictments before his smuggling career apparently ended in the early 1980s.
He would be convicted only once, and even then evaded prison because of the vagaries of the criminal justice system. (His brother Ernie, now a co-owner of a successful Valley meat company, did serve time for the pot smuggling.)
Tercero says he suspects that the Army might be loath, even now, to convey greater honors to someone who moved copious amounts of weed around the nation for years.
For the record, he says, his smuggling days are long behind him, noting that authorities last busted him more than a quarter-century ago.