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A 1966 letter to ‘any GI’ in Vietnam goes full circle

 

So, to all you soldiers in Viet Nam, and especially to the boys of the First Division with whom I so proudly served during World War II, in behalf of the Military Order of the Purple Heart and my family I Salute you.

That’s a portion of a letter Albuquerque resident Jake J. Griego wrote on Nov. 11, 1965, and addressed to “Any GI in Viet Nam.”

It ended up with Army 1st Sgt. Donald R. Davis, a native of Maryland, who was serving in Vietnam at the time. But Davis is probably not the only soldier who read that letter in Vietnam more than 50 years ago.

“They would pass them around. Especially at Christmas,” said Scott Davis, Donald’s son. “I remember my dad saying many years ago that some of the troops didn’t receive much mail, so the Christmas letters were always shared between soldiers.”

Scott, a photographer living in Leesburg, Va., found Griego’s letter of support and several similar letters while going through his father’s papers recently.

“They were all from different people, from different parts of the country,” Scott told me in a recent phone conversation. “Some were from kids, 8 or 9 years old.”

Donald Davis suffered a severe head injury in Vietnam in 1966.

“He fell through a staircase when an explosion went off,” said Scott Davis, 58. “He suffered some sort of concussion, some sort of brain trauma.”

U.S. Army soldier Donald R. Davis in the field in Vietnam in 1965 or 1966. During his first tour in Vietnam, Davis received Griego’s letter, which was addressed to “Any GI in Viet Nam.” (Courtesy of Scott Davis)

Scott’s father died of brain cancer in 1986 at age 60. When he found the letters, Scott thought it would be a nice surprise to get them back to the senders, completing a circle that encompasses five decades and thousands of miles. He contacted the Journal to see if the paper could find Jake Griego or his family.

Jake J. Griego died in March 2001 at age 78. But 20 minutes with an old city directory and one phone call put me in touch with Gloria Austin, Griego’s eldest daughter. She lives about 10 minutes from the Journal newsroom.

Her three sisters still reside in Albuquerque as well.

Gloria said the letter is very much in keeping with her father’s nature.

In this photo from about 20 years ago, Jake J. Griego, who died in 2001, is shown with his daughter, Gloria Austin, and his great-grandchildren Jacob and Morgan after receiving an award for his work with veterans. (Courtesy of Gloria Austin)

“He was always trying to help, especially the veterans,” she said. Gloria said her father worked on veterans issues with former U.S. Sens. Joseph Montoya, D-N.M., and Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and with former U.S. Rep. Manuel Lujan, R-N.M.

“He would write letters to help veterans get their pensions,” said Dick Austin, Gloria’s husband.

Griego was born in Santa Rosa, grew up in Trinidad, Colo., and lived the last 54 years of his life in Albuquerque, working many of those years for the U.S. Postal Service.

Albuquerque’s Gloria Austin displays photos and other mementos from the life of her late father, Jake J. Griego, a veteran of World War II and a staunch supporter of veterans’ rights. Austin will soon be able to add to that collection. A 1965 letter her father wrote to “Any GI in Viet Nam” is being returned to her by the son of the man who received it. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

“He walked a mail route, 12 miles a day,” Gloria said. “His route was between Candelaria and Menaul and west of San Mateo.”

During World War II, he served in the Army from 1941 to 1945, losing a kidney to wounds suffered in France. He did another short stint with the Army in 1947.

After his military service, Griego was commander and service officer of a Disabled American Veterans chapter and a commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart.

It was while representing the latter organization during a 1965 Veterans Day program in Albuquerque that Griego was inspired to write his letter to “Any GI in Viet Nam.”

“In further appreciation of the wonderful job you boys are doing in Viet Nam I thought that it would only be very fitting and proper that I write you and let you know that we do think of you all the time.”

Griego might have been surprised to learn that his letter ended up, not with a GI just out of high school, but with a career soldier only a few years younger than he was. Donald Davis went into the Army in 1944, when he was 18, and served in Okinawa during the latter part of World War II. He also served during the Korean War.

Scott was still a young child when his father left for Vietnam. He remembers seeing his father off at the airport.

“I didn’t know what Vietnam was,” he said. “I thought it was like going on a safari.”

He said his father would send back reel-to-reel film “letters” from Vietnam.

“Sometimes he would apologize for the explosions that could be heard in the background,” Scott said. “He loved the people of Vietnam. He was there fighting the war for them. He was so enamored of the culture. He was able to learn enough of the language to interact with the local people.”

After his injury in Vietnam, Donald Davis was hospitalized for three months but then returned to active duty, serving for a time in Germany. In 1970, he persuaded the Army to send him back to Vietnam.

That did not go well. 1st Sgt. Davis was apparently blindsided by post-traumatic stress disorder and hospitalized. Scott has vivid memories of flashbacks his father suffered after his return home.

Donald R. Davis takes advantage of some downtime to make some notes or write a letter home during a tour of duty in Vietnam. Davis suffered a severe head injury in Vietnam in 1966. (Courtesy of Scott Davis)

“He would be yelling, speaking in Vietnamese,” Scott said. “He would pick up rocks as if they were grenades. He would see a log, like a downed tree, in the backyard and think it was one of his guys and drape it with a blanket. And then, just as quick as it happened, he would be fine again.”

Scott said his father retired from the Army on 70 percent disability.

“He did not want to accept full disability because he never wanted to be ineligible for being called up again,” Scott said. “People said, ‘You’re crazy; you’re old; you’re retired.’ But he would have gone in his 60s. He was that passionate about his country. All his life, he wanted to be a soldier.”

Scott said that after retirement, his father volunteered with Veterans Affairs and the DAV.

Jake Griego would have appreciated that. Apparently, his letter reached a kindred spirit.

And now, it’s on its way home again.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Ollie at 823-3916 or oreedjr@gmail.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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