When Juan Tercero made the decision that quietly would define his life, he was wearing a T-shirt, green U.S. Army boxer shorts, and rubber shower thongs.
Specialist Four Tercero, known as Tony, was chilling at Camp Eagle, a military base near the ancient city of Hue, Vietnam.
It was November 20, 1968, and Tercero was ready to go home. The 20-year-old Arizonan had survived his yearlong tour relatively unscathed.
Months earlier, shrapnel from a missile had landed in Tercero's back. But his injury healed quickly and he had spent the following months in country as a member of Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRPS).
Officially, Tercero was with F Company 58th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division — the Screaming Eagles. He was a "Lurp," his unit's colloquial name.
Lurps were part of an elite outfit that would sneak deep into enemy territory and spy for days at a time on, say, North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troop movement.
The camouflaged soldiers blended into the dense jungle and mountain terrain and usually wouldn't engage in combat unless they had to.
It was risky, but often rewarding duty.
Tercero was set to leave Camp Eagle the next day, the first step on his way back to the States.
He was a skinny, dark-skinned kid from the streets of Phoenix who usually wore a wry grin that implied, "I know something that you don't" — which probably was true.
A "scrounger from way back," as he refers to himself, Tercero knew how to find the best black-market deals on just about anything, which made him popular at the base.
He had enlisted in the Army as an 18-year-old, after stepping into a recruiting station in downtown Phoenix on a whim. The military promised an opportunity to escape a dangerously unstructured life, one that seemed destined to include time at the Arizona State Prison.
Indeed, the Army proved an excellent fit for Tercero, drawing out of him a new sense of purpose and a deep loyalty to his band of Lurp brothers.
That purpose showed itself on November 20, 1968, during a daring rescue mission atop a remote hill in the Ruong Ruong Valley, near the demilitarized zone.
Because of what happened on that bloody mission, in which four soldiers died and numerous others were wounded, Tony Tercero's company became one of the most decorated outfits in the history of the 101st Airborne.
In descending order of military significance, two soldiers won (one posthumously) Distinguished Service Crosses, six won Silver Stars, and two helicopter pilots won Distinguished Flying Crosses.
Fifteen soldiers earned Purple Hearts.
Two others, including Tercero, won Bronze Stars with the "V" device for valor. In awarding that medal, the Army said Tercero had "distinguished himself during a mission to rescue a long-range patrol near Hue. When the patrol became surrounded by an enemy platoon, the company commander called his unit, requesting volunteers to be dropped into the area to save the team.
"Without hesitation," the Army's report said, "Specialist Tercero grabbed his weapon and ran to the helicopter pad . . . The thick jungle canopy was too dense to allow a normal landing and the [enemy] was everywhere, and several men were wounded on the [rescue effort].
"Specialist Tercero ran up the hill about 100 meters and linked with the besieged team. He immediately took charge of the radio and reported the link-up and the situation. He then directed the other men to the best defensive positions and assisted in extracting the casualties.
"Through his valorous efforts, the lives of the remaining team members were saved, [and] the volunteers were positioned . . . Specialist Tercero's personal bravery and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of military service."
All of it was accurate.
But here's the rub: Several ex-soldiers continue to insist four decades later that Tony Tercero deserved far more than a Bronze Star.
"Most of us are aware of three examples of spectacular heroism that day," says Kenn Miller, a Southern California resident who served with Tercero and later authored a well-regarded novel based on Miller's Vietnam experiences, Tiger, the Lurp Dog.
"Those three examples are Billy Walkabout, Riley Cox, and Tony Tercero. Tony totally led the rescue mission on that hill, and he should have won a Distinguished Service Cross for what he did. Everyone who was there knows it. But medals often don't reflect reality. With Tony leaving Vietnam the next day, maybe it was out of sight, out of mind. The Bronze Star is nothing to sneeze at, but he deserved much more."
The Bronze Star was awarded 170,626 times during the Vietnam War, according to a U.S. military Web site.
By comparison, 21,634 Silver Stars, 848 Distinguished Service Crosses, and 161 Medals of Honor were awarded during 'Nam.
Tony Tercero didn't communicate with anyone from that unforgettable November 1968 mission for almost two decades.
Tercero often wondered how his wartime colleagues were faring. But his life had taken so many twists and turns that time just slipped away.
One of the bigger twists was his becoming a major marijuana smuggler in the mid-1970s, and his constant troubles with the law allowed him scant time for retrospection.
But in the mid-1980s, Tercero decided to attend a Lurps reunion at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, with his wife, Lucille. It was then, Tercero says, that he learned about all the medals that the Army had awarded after the November 20 mission.
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.
Apparently going straight has won him many unlikely allies, including former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, whose staunch anti-drug positions while in office were well documented.
"Tony is a shining example of why we shouldn't give up on people, that there is good in most of us," says Romley, a former Marine who lost his legs to a mine explosion during the Vietnam War.
"Sure, he was a lawbreaker, but there for the grace of God went a lot of us. I know that he cleaned up his act and has helped a lot of people, especially at-risk kids. As for the war stuff, he did things of great consequence for his fellow soldiers without regard for himself. Isn't that what a hero is?"
The feds first busted Tony Tercero for conspiring to sell marijuana on November 1, 1974.
It was the same day that the U.S. Army honorably discharged the staff sergeant after seven distinguished years.
Tercero was 26 and the father of two young daughters (a son would come along a few years later). He says he pocketed more money moving dope in the month before his official discharge (he was using sick leave at the time) than in his entire seven-plus years in the Army.
He began to live large, driving fancy cars, cavorting with fancy women, and, inevitably, hiring fancy lawyers.
That Tony Tercero became a key member of what was known to the police as "The Tercero Marijuana Smuggling Syndicate" shouldn't have surprised anyone who knew his background.
"I was born to play the game," he says. "I always liked to live somewhat on the edge."
Reynel Martinez, himself a decorated Lurp who was Tercero's mentor and sergeant for a time in Vietnam, analyzes him like this:
"Tony is the ultimate right-brain guy. In Vietnam, he was intuitive and more connected to the earth than most, and was able to instinctively react to situations. He can see the big picture, and get things done on his own, and he's done that his whole life — as a kid, a soldier, a drug smuggler, and now. He grew up very tough, you know."
Tony Tercero spent his early years in the Arizona mining town of Miami. He was an "M & M," as he puts it — a "Mountain Mexican."
He was the oldest of five children born to Ernesto and Maria Tercero. All his siblings are still living. His younger brother Jimmy is in prison for possessing heroin.
Tercero's uncle, a few years older than him, is Alfredo Gutierrez, a former Arizona gubernatorial candidate and state senator.
The Terceros moved to Douglas when Tony was about 6. But his father, then a traveling salesman, abandoned the family a few years later, moving to Phoenix and leaving his wife with her young brood.
"One day he left and didn't come back," Tercero says. "We went from having everything to nothing."
Tercero says he and younger brother Ernie took to shining shoes and selling tamales on the streets of Douglas. The two were bilingual, which held them in good stead when they began to steer soldiers from nearby Fort Huachuca to whorehouses across the border in Agua Prieta.
"Little pimps," Tercero says, chuckling. "Or should I say, up-and-coming young businessmen?"
He fought frequently as a kid, which wasn't unusual for someone on the streets as much as he was. But a Cochise County court official wrote in 1960 that Tercero, who was 12 at the time, also hit his mother on occasion and was careening out of control.
Maria Tercero decided to ship her oldest child to Phoenix to live with her estranged husband. Ernesto Tercero Sr. proved more a peer than an authority figure, and young Tony soon began to get in trouble with the local police.
Stints in and out of the juvenile detention center at Fort Grant in eastern Arizona and similar facilities followed for the next several years.
Tercero's final stay at Fort Grant ended on August 26, 1966, shortly before his 18th birthday. Back in Phoenix, he decided one day to enlist in the Army after getting into a serious barroom brawl that he feared might land him in adult prison.
"Of course I had heard of Vietnam, but I couldn't have told you where it was," Tercero says. "I wasn't gung-ho. I just wanted to stay out of jail."
After acing basic training, Tony Tercero started his Army career in the infantry, another grunt about to be dropped into a war-torn land far from Phoenix.
He left for Vietnam in December 1967.
"We didn't know nothing," he says. "We were all cherries. It didn't seem real."
Tercero soon learned how real Vietnam was.
"Gunfire, bodies, adrenaline, confusion, people getting killed because people didn't know what they were doing," is how he describes it.
Much as he had in Arizona, Tercero quickly learned the lay of the land in 'Nam. During lulls, he says, the "scrounger" found where to score beer, soda, and other morale-boosting fare.
On March 7, 1968, Tercero was wounded by shrapnel from an incoming missile. That laid him up for about a month.
Still with months to go in his tour, Tercero resolved to do whatever it took to stay out of harm's way. For starters, he persuaded Army doctors to sign a form that would keep from the front lines.
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.
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.
Helicopter pilots William Meacham and W.T. Grant finally returned to survey the dire situation from the air. Both men immediately returned to Camp Eagle to pick up an improvised, all-volunteer rescue team.
"I didn't even really think about it," Tony Tercero recalls. "When I heard what was going on, I had to go help those guys."
Still in shorts and shower thongs, Tercero sprinted to a supply store, picked up a new M-16 and ammunition, and headed to the helicopter pad.
Everyone at the base, including supply clerks who had seen little or no combat, was volunteering to help. But space in the helicopters was limited.
William Meacham wrote in his book Lest We Forget that he tried to persuade Tercero — whom he knew was about to leave Vietnam — to stay back.
"This guy had to be nuts," the pilot wrote. "I looked him square in the face and yelled for him to get off the aircraft. He smiled, then pointed his M-16 right between my eyes and said, 'You just take off.' Well, shit. His argument was much more persuasive than mine." (Tercero swears that he never pointed his weapon at Meacham.)
It was dusk when the helicopters arrived at besieged hill. According to Meacham (and on this point, he and Tony Tercero agree), Tercero was the first to jump off the chopper into the elephant grass.
Right behind him was Tim Coleman, a red-haired Lurp from Florida, who would suffer shrapnel wounds later that day.
"TT just happened to be on the lead — he didn't forcibly do it, and maybe he didn't want to do it," says Coleman, a retired firefighter who now lives in southern Illinois. "Maybe it was his moment to do what he had to do. I was on his heels. He was charging up the hill. It was by the grace of God that we made it up there. There were bodies everywhere, blood everywhere. We knew our guys had been hammered bad.
"A gook had Tony in his sights. I shot him. We started looking for the wounded and the dead, and doing the radio stuff and so on. Tony was leading the way, and anything that he told people to do, we did. Mind you, he was doing all of this under fire, which is courage in its essence. Tony shined that day so brightly. He deserves the credit for no one else getting killed or seriously wounded."
Riley Cox, the badly injured bull of a man who had refused to stop fighting, recalls the moment this way:
"You could hear them fighting to get up the hill, and there was a lot of firing . . . When Tony and a handful of others got to the top, there were only three of us still able to fight."
Cox says he saw Tercero render first aid, triage the wounded (including himself), and call in for friendly fire so evacuation helicopters could more safely move into the area.
The Colorado resident says he was getting lifted into a helicopter when an NVA regular aimed his gun at him: "I saw Tony move between the NVA and me and shoot him with a burst from an M-16. If he hadn't killed him, I wouldn't be here today."
Gary Linderer, who also was wounded on the hill, confirms Cox's account.
But Tercero won't go there.
"I don't remember shooting anybody up there," he says with a shrug and that wry grin. "I only remember sporadic fire by the time we got there. I do remember doing a lot of stuff. But me killing a gook to save Riley? I don't know about that."
Tercero stayed on the hill for what seemed like hours, still scantily clad. It was pitch black by the time he and the last rescuers were ready to leave, but a problem arose.
In their haste to leave Camp Eagle, Tercero's makeshift response team had jumped aboard the choppers with nothing but their weapons. How were the pilots to know where to pick them up?
It happened like this: Lurps usually carried Zippo lighters, and this day was no exception. An inscription on the standard-issue lighter said, "We are the unwilling, led by the unqualified, to do the unnecessary, for the ungrateful." The Zippos provided enough flickering direction for pilots Meacham and Grant to safely collect Tony Tercero and the other remaining Lurps.
Back at Camp Eagle, Tercero says he fell into bed, still hoping to head home, as scheduled, the next day. And he did.
The Army issued several "impact" medals within days after the events of November 20.
A Silver Star went to an officer from the cavalry unit that hadn't come to the rescue in time. Kenn Miller, who was with the first team on November 20, not Team 24, says he spoke later to that officer.
"He was actually bitter about it," Miller says. "He had seen Tony doing all this stuff out there after they finally showed up. Tony had showed him where to set up security when he finally got there. The guy told me, 'This is bullshit. Why me? I'm never going to wear that thing.'"
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.
"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.
"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.
"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!"
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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."