"We figured that would extend our lifespan, which it did," he says.

Tercero tells tales of some hairy moments both in the States and in Mexico. "Typical smuggling stuff," he says. "Guys wanting to pay one price, other guys not seeing things the same way, having to walk away from some deals, generally being blessed. But no shoot-outs or nothing like that — just big dope deals."

The Terceros transported marijuana all over the United States and into Canada, and their rise inside the clandestine industry inevitably brought them to the attention of federal narcotics agents.

Tony Tercero back in his U.S. Army days, which ended in 1974.
Tony Tercero back in his U.S. Army days, which ended in 1974.

"We obviously knew we were on their radar," Tercero says, "but there's always another deal to do, another score."

In the early 1980s, a jury finally convicted Tony Tercero of conspiracy in a pot case. Prison seemed a near-certainty this time.

His defense attorney was Stephen Gerst, who later became a respected Superior Court judge and now teaches at the Phoenix School of Law.

"They were running marijuana down from the St. Lawrence Seaway — lots of it — and I didn't have a lot to work with," Gerst recalls. "Tony wasn't the main character in the conspiracy, though he was involved. He said to me when we met, 'How are you going to get me off?' Well, everyone got convicted."

Gerst says he learned about Tercero's war heroics before sentencing.

"I brought up his bravery in Vietnam to the judge," Gerst says, "and tears started falling [in the courtroom]. It was very moving."

The judge, Valdemar Cordova, had been a World War II hero and a prisoner of war.

"He just couldn't drop the hammer on my guy after that, and he continued the sentencing [hearing]," Gerst says.

But Judge Cordova died before the rescheduled sentencing date, and another judge took over.

Which could've been bad for Tercero. But records show he never did serve a day in prison after his conviction. Instead, the new judge put him on probation and ordered community-service work.

He says his dope-dealing days were done.

In 1986, Tercero reunited with his Army colleagues for the first time since Vietnam.

Many other ex-soldiers who were involved in the events of November 20, 1968, showed up at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, including Riley Cox, Gary Linderer, Tim Coleman, and Kenn Miller.

"Everyone naturally was fatter, balder, and just older," Miller recalls. "But after you spent time with Tony, you realized he was exactly the same — same walk, same talk, same wit. It made me remember that this guy's heart was as big as his guts."

Notable by his absence was Billy Walkabout, whose 23 months in Vietnam had led him to tell the Associated Press in a 1983 interview, "War is not hell. It's worse." His post-'Nam years had been difficult for the heroic Cherokee, fighting battles with substance abuse and mental health issues. (Walkabout died in 2007 at age 57.)

Tony Tercero says he was stunned by a theme of the reunion: outrage that he hadn't won more than the Bronze Star.

"I hadn't given it a lot of thought," he says.

In 1991, Arizona State University hired Tercero for what he calls "my first real job working for someone else."

The title of the job, which at first paid just $7.50 an hour, was marketing coordinator/special projects at the Sundome.

He was 43.

Tercero says he was happy to be a working stiff. But he was much more proud of a children-at-risk program he had started. It was a gesture to his community that he truly had gone straight.

He would win the Arizona Attorney General's Distinguished Service Award in 1993, among other community-service honors, for his work with the children.

A stint as a national salesman for the Spanish-language television network Univision followed, as did a general sales manager gig with the local radio station La Campesina. Tercero also started his own marketing firm, Tercero and Company.

But Tercero says he hasn't been working full-time since 2005.

"I'm too old to start up fresh and too young to retire," he says. "Right now, we're kind of on the edge, waiting to figure out what I'm supposed to do, what my next step will be."

A few weeks ago — long after New Times began researching this story — Tercero revealed that doctors told him after a routine checkup that he has bladder cancer.

He says the docs are hopeful the cancer hasn't spread to other organs, which will give him an excellent chance at long-term survival.

Says Tercero, "It's like my grandmother used to tell me, 'This is the Lord's way of testing you.' Well, shit!"

Tercero's daughter Cyndi has started to piece together an updated packet that she hopes will finally win him his rightful military honors.

Congressman Ed Pastor tells New Times that he "will be happy and honored to do whatever it takes to help this guy get what's coming to him. I'm serious about this. He is the definition of a real hero."

About that fourth trip to Vietnam, the one Tony Tercero never thought would happen: In 2000, he, his uncle Alfredo Gutierrez, and others went on a bicycle tour of the country where he once fought.

"There are good people there, hard-working, good people," Tercero says. "I remember seeing some little kids shining shoes and selling food on the street. They reminded me of me and Ernie back in Douglas pitching our tamales. Those kids were just like us."

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