At an awards ceremony two days later, Team Two's Billy Walkabout, who also had performed heroic feats on the hill, won his own Silver Star.

Walkabout was the most highly decorated Native American of the Vietnam War. He later won the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest honor awarded by the military, for his actions on November 20.

Tony Tercero says he rarely spoke about that crazy day for years.

Tercero and his rescue team used Zippo lighters to direct helicopter pilots to a safe landing zone on November 20, 1968.
Jamie Peachey
Tercero and his rescue team used Zippo lighters to direct helicopter pilots to a safe landing zone on November 20, 1968.

"Who was going to believe me?" he says.

Tercero returned to the States and was stationed at Fort Huachuca, where he learned by mail in May 1969 that he had won the Bronze Star.

That was one more medal than Tim Coleman — the Lurp who bravely had followed Tercero up the hill — won. It took him "29 years, six months, and four days" to get his medals, he tells New Times.

After Coleman's congressman went to bat for him in 1998, the ex-Lurp found his rural mailbox stuffed with decorations, including a Silver Star for what he had done on November 20.

"It is the nation's way of saying thanks for what you did for your country, and for very little pay and no gratitude at the time," Coleman says. "It says that you did more than a normal soldier would have been asked or expected to do."

Tony Tercero says he had designs on becoming an Army lifer after he returned to the States in December 1968.

Before he returned to Vietnam for his second tour of duty, in early 1970, he got married, fathered his oldest child, Cyndi, and made sergeant while stationed at Fort Huachuca in Cochise County.

As a marijuana smuggler a few years later, Tercero would become very familiar with the topography of southeast Arizona, which shares a border with Mexico.

Faced with a choice of going to Germany or returning to Vietnam for a second tour, Tercero chose the latter. A platoon sergeant by now, he remained in the rear — where his odds of survival were exponentially higher — for both his second and third tours.

When Sergeant Tercero went home in November 1972, he figured he'd seen Vietnam for the final time. He was wrong, but not for the reasons he suspected at the time.

Largely because of Tercero's gift of gab, the Army made him a recruiter after he returned. Over the next two years or so, he was stationed in the state of Washington and in Arizona.

"I got a lot of guys like me into the service," Tercero says. "I was very good at recruiting, and it wasn't an easy time. I thought I was going to retire in the military."

In early 1974, Tercero's supervising lieutenant colonel wrote, "Staff Sergeant Tercero is one of the most outstanding non-commissioned officers whom I have observed in 16 years of active military service."

But Tercero got crossways with his superiors that year over money issues, and he put his concerns in writing. The superiors took umbrage.

Tercero decided to quit the Army and go into a different line of work.

That would be smuggling marijuana with his younger brother Ernie, who already was in the business. Tercero says he long had enjoyed smoking the stuff but hadn't considered selling it until then.

"I didn't have any money, and I had a family," Tercero says. "The opportunity was sitting there, and I took it."

When Tercero was honorably discharged in November 1974 (he'd been using his sick leave for about a month), he says he and his brother had about 1,000 pounds of weed stashed inside a west Phoenix house.

Tercero's first foray into dope smuggling ended in his arrest by the feds. Brother Ernie was convicted in the case. But charges against Tony Tercero ultimately were dismissed.

The close call with the law did not serve as a wake-up call.

"Hell, no," Tercerco says. "It was a different era. We had a good operation, and we took care of everybody. Nobody was doing cocaine yet, so nobody was thinking they were badasses with the guns and all."

Still, it was the start of an improbable streak of good legal fortune for Tercero, who says he never spent more than 30 days in jail at a time and never served time in prison.

As the pot-smuggling business grew, Tercero began to incorporate some old Lurps techniques into his new theater, especially on the U.S.-Mexico border.

"I figured out all of the secret radio frequencies that the feds and the rest of them used on the border," Tercero says, voice tinged with a certain pride at the memory.

"I would go up into those mountains down in Cochise [County] and sit there by myself for three or four days — Lurp stuff, patient as could be. I would get out of sight and wait for the government drug planes to go by, would time them, and then I knew when it was cool to send our stuff through. After a while, we started moving the shit with planes. That was a whole different story . . ."

Tercero says he resolved early on "not to get my hand caught in the cookie jar," by which he means getting busted with the marijuana his outfit was smuggling in.

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