But something changed in Tercero after he began to mingle with the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol units based at Camp Eagle:

"They lived together, and you could see and feel the camaraderie, how serious they were about what they did, how they looked out for each other. Guys might get high in the rear, but these guys weren't fuck-ups. They wouldn't get high on missions. Being a Lurp was their whole identity. They wore their black caps at a certain angle, had an attitude."

The Lurps were a stealthy crew who left their dog tags behind when they went on missions, so they wouldn't be identified by the enemy. The unit was sworn to secrecy about what it was doing, which partly was to spy on the NVA and Viet Cong.

Tony Tercero’s oldest child, Cyndi Tercero-Sandoval.
Jamie Peachey
Tony Tercero’s oldest child, Cyndi Tercero-Sandoval.
Retired Army Staff Sergeant Rey Martinez.
Retired Army Staff Sergeant Rey Martinez.

Tercero hungered to become a Lurp.

He befriended Sergeant Rey Martinez, a fellow Latino with Native American blood. Martinez was coming up on the end of his second grueling tour of duty.

"Tony told me he wanted to do what we were doing, but he needed a sponsor," says Martinez, a retired railroad man from Idaho who now provides counseling to vets returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

"I said, 'What makes you think I want you?' But you kind of get a feel for someone. His motivation was there, which has value to me. And he had this primitive sense of being able to move and connect the right way — just full of savvy. He turned out to be one of the best soldiers I ever had work under me."

Sergeant Martinez helped Tercero maneuver his way into the Lurps. The training was intense, but Tercero stayed the course and became a Lurp.

"We usually went out in six-man teams for days at a time, looking for the gooks' trail movements and so on," he says. "It was a lot of sitting in mud or marsh or jungle for hours at a time — leeches and all — until we finally would get pulled out by a helicopter at some point."

Asked to explain his frequent use of the ethnic slur to describe the Vietnamese, Tercero says, "It is a bad word; I know that. But at the time, the NVA and Cong were the enemy, and I didn't want to think about them having families and loved ones and all. So they became 'gooks.' I'm sorry."

He says he and the other Lurps usually ingested amphetamines before going out on missions:

"We would stay awake for three straight days, or whatever, out there. Then we'd come back in, clean our weapons, go downtown and get laid, come back to base, take a Librium, sleep for hours and hours, then get ready for the next mission. I loved it! I was a Lurp!"

Tony Tercero's mentor, Rey Martinez, left Vietnam in July 1968.

Tercero was scheduled to go home late that November.

He was to be flown out November 21, and he'd turned in his M-16 a few days before that.

On November 19, helicopter pilots had flown two teams of 12 men each — all Lurps — into different parts of the Ruong Ruong Valley. It is a mountainous region surrounded by dense jungle — an ideal hiding ground for the NVA and Viet Cong.

The first team's mission was to observe enemy troop movement and seek and destroy an NVA radio transmitter thought to be in the area.

The second squad — Team 24 — was to look for the headquarters of an NVA regiment.

Team 24's landing zone was in a steep ravine inundated with thick, 10-foot-tall elephant grass.

The squad spent the night hunkered down in the mountains near the ravine. It included Riley Cox, Gary Linderer, and a Cherokee from Oklahoma named Billy Walkabout. Sergeant Al Contreros, an aggressive 19-year-old from New York City, led the team.

Early the next morning, November 20, Team 24 killed about nine enemy soldiers who had entered the area. Among the dead were three or four female nurses who, according to Army records, were armed.

This is where the story turns into a Vietnam War version of Rashômon, the classic Akira Kurosawa movie in which four people (including the victim of a murder) view the same event through wildly different prisms.

What appears certain is that an Army "reaction force" that should have moved into the area to support Team 24 after the morning's attack inexplicably didn't get there until it was too late.

"When you are six guys or 12 guys and you get spotted," Tony Tercero says, "your life expectancy is, like, three minutes. You got to get the fuck out of there."

But Team 24 didn't.

Time passed, and an NVA force that had been alerted to the earlier skirmish moved in and surrounded the badly outnumbered Lurps.

Team 24 moved to a ridge on a hill that provided slight protection.

Suddenly, a 40-pound anti-personnel mine designed to destroy a wide swath of the hill exploded.

Three Lurps died instantly, and Sergeant Contreros was fatally wounded. Everyone on the team suffered injuries, some critical.

Riley Cox's guts literally were hanging out of his stomach, and his right arm was shattered. Somehow, though, he kept firing at the enemy and prayed for help to arrive.

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