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‘They were heroes’

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Delfino Candelaria holds a banner at the end of the Appalachian Trail on top of Mount Katahdin, the tallest peak in Maine. To honor those who died in his unit from the Vietnam War, Candelaria hiked the trail from Georgia to Maine incrementally for six years before completing it on Sept. 15. (Courtesy of Delfino Candelaria)

The world seemed to stop for Delfino Candelaria when he reached the end of his journey on the Appalachian Trail on Sept. 15.

Candelaria, 72, felt a chilling wind cutting across the rocky terrain as he lugged his 38-pound pack the five miles up Mount Katahdin, the tallest peak in Maine. A group of 30 other hikers was celebrating the end of its hike when Candelaria reached the summit.

The group fell silent, and the wind came to a standstill as Candelaria unfurled a banner given to him from a sign company in South Carolina that said: “Hiked 2,193 miles on the Appalachian Trail for the 461 Marines in his Vietnam unit that were killed.”

“I thought I was the only one in tears,” Candelaria said. “I looked around, and at least half of them had tears. Then they all came up to me and congratulated me.”

Candelaria started the hike in 2014 and hiked sections of the trail each year. The first year, he hiked 70 miles north from Virginia.

Candelaria said his experience as a Marine in Vietnam helped him complete the trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine. Instead of cautiously walking dirt paths for fear of booby traps, Candelaria scaled boulders the size of couches; instead of battling the enemy, Candelaria battled wildlife and the elements.

The nearly 40-pound pack wasn’t the only thing Candelaria carried. He carried the memories of his friends who didn’t leave Vietnam – including his close friend, Daniel Escobedo.

A month after Candelaria arrived in Vietnam, he became fast friends with Escobedo, a clean-shaven, round-faced 18-year-old from California. On Sept. 7, 1967, a force of 2,000 North Vietnamese soldiers fired rockets on them. Candelaria and Escobedo were with five other Marines when a rocket landed 10 feet from Candelaria, throwing dirt on him from the impact – the rocket did not explode. That was just one of six brushes with death Candelaria experienced through the war, but not everyone was as lucky.

Two months into their 13-month tour, Escobedo was doubtful they’d make it out alive.

“He said to me, ‘If we have experienced this so far, we are not going to make it,’ ” Candelaria said.

Three days before the Tet Offensive in January 1968, Candelaria and Escobedo were in a foxhole when their lieutenant approached them and asked one of Candelaria’s men to accompany him. As Candelaria was lifting himself from his foxhole, Escobedo grabbed his hand and told Candelaria he would go.

“Unfortunately, he died that day,” Candelaria said. “He was like a brother… Day in and day out, we joked, we laughed, we played, we patrolled. We did everything together.”

Pre-war life

Candelaria, born in Albuquerque’s Martineztown in 1948, enlisted in 1966 when he was 18 years old. During high school, Candelaria held a job working as a paperboy for the Albuquerque Journal for a year when he was 14. Candelaria grew up with an older sister and a younger brother and sister. They lived with their father and grandmother in Martineztown. Candelaria never had a relationship with his mother.

One of Delfino Candelaria’s diaries that he kept in Vietnam
lies open next to a photo of him with his siblings taken in Albuquerque’s Martineztown when he was 6 years old. (Anthony Jackson/Albuquerque Journal)

The last time he saw his mother was when he was 17, working at McDonald’s.

“She came up to the window, I served her,” Candelaria said. “I didn’t know it was my mother until this gentleman came up to the window and gave me a note that was given to him from her.”

The family eventually left Martineztown and moved to the University of New Mexico area with their aunt and uncle.

Candelaria didn’t stay there for long. Soon after they moved in, Candelaria’s younger sister ran away back to Martineztown.

“When she left, I told my aunt and uncle that I was sorry. I had to follow her,” Candelaria recalls. “I don’t think I had much of a choice.”

Candelaria left Valley High School before he graduated to go back to Martineztown to watch out for his younger sister. He eventually graduated from Albuquerque High School and enlisted.

Life in Martineztown, Candelaria said, influenced his decision to enlist. He wanted to get away from an environment with drugs and gangs.

“I told myself I need to do something, that that’s going to help me grow up and at the same time maybe give me a trade so that later on in life I can use it,” Candelaria said.

In June 1966, Candelaria was sent to San Diego for eight weeks of basic training. However, eight weeks turned into six months as Candelaria went in and out of the hospital for a foot infection caused by wearing boots that were too narrow for his wide feet. After the third time he was discharged from the hospital, Candelaria was sent to the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, California, to learn Vietnamese.

He excelled at it, thanks to his understanding of the Spanish language.

“A lot of the vowels in the Vietnamese language are actually identical to that of the Spanish language,” Candelaria said. “I had a small advantage.”

By the end of his training at the language school, Candelaria was assigned to be a radioman in the 3rd Marine Division. He arrived in Vietnam on June 13, 1967.

Candelaria compared his arrival in Vietnam to the opening of the movie “Platoon” as he emerged from a military transport plane onto a hot and dusty tarmac on Dong Ha Combat Base. Watching a cart haul away dead Americans was Candelaria’s first experience with death in Vietnam.

As a radioman and translator, Candelaria had to accompany an officer, but this proved to be a dangerous job. He was told that a radioman’s life expectancy was about 30 seconds.

“North Vietnamese snipers were always looking for an officer,” Candelaria said. “And of course, the radioman is right next to the officer.”

The next 13 months would be filled with patrols and battles against the enemy and the elements.

Postwar life

Candelaria finished his tour on July 8, 1968, and returned to Albuquerque with nine medals. He would spend the rest of his service stateside until he was honorably discharged in January 1970.

As Candelaria transitioned into civilian life, there was a part of him that thought he was still in Vietnam.

“When I was driving my brother-in-law’s car, a motorcycle went by me, and in my mind, I thought it was a machine gun. I almost ended up wrecking the car,” Candelaria said.

With his new life as a civilian, Candelaria worked with the FBI in Washington, D.C., as a fingerprint analyst for two years before enrolling at the University of Maryland at College Park, taking night classes. It was there he would meet his future wife, Margaret Barolet. After he received his associate degree, he and Margaret left for Albuquerque. Candelaria enrolled at the University of New Mexico and eventually graduated from its medical school in 1985. He then took a job with Indian Health Services.

In 2011, Candelaria would use his skills as a doctor to save his company commander’s life during a Marine Corps reunion in Branson, Missouri.

“I heard a woman’s scream, and when I looked down I saw a man on the floor,” Candelaria said.

Candelaria checked the man’s pulse. He didn’t feel one. Candelaria began performing CPR until paramedics arrived with an automated external defibrillator.

“He survived. In fact, every year on Sept. 18, he calls me and thanks me for saving his life,” Candelaria said. “But ironically, 43 years prior when I was in Vietnam, I felt that because of his command that he saved my life.”

Delfino Candelaria, a Vietnam veteran from Albuquerque’s Martineztown, retired pediatrician and avid hiker in his West Side home. (Anthony Jackson/Albuquerque Journal)

Candelaria retired as a pediatrician in 2014. He started thinking about hiking the Appalachian Trail soon after; it’s been a tradition in Margaret’s family, and other members of his former unit were willing to go. Unfortunately, their health didn’t allow it.

But Candelaria still wanted to go.

Candelaria started researching the trail and training. For seven weeks before each section he would hike on the Appalachian Trail, Candelaria would hike La Luz Trail to the top of the Sandia Crest three times a week.

He said 461 Marines in his 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment died from 1965 though 1970. In 2019, Candelaria started documenting the 205 who died while he was in Vietnam.

“I was going to say something about these men and try to bring out that they were heroes,” Candelaria said.

But sometimes it’s painful to reopen old wounds.

“There are times where a tear will run down because I’ll think, ‘It should have been me, not him.’ But that’s what happens,” Candelaria said.

Other times, he thinks about the moments of cruel fate.

In the early hours of Sept. 18, 1967 – a Monday – eight Marines drowned when they were swept up in a flash flood from the banks of the Cam Lo River in Quang Tri province.

It had been raining a couple of days, and that night “the water rose, like, 6 feet in about 15 minutes.”

Six Marines were being carried downstream, and two lieutenants, both of whom had won swimming awards before the war, jumped in to try and save them.

“The reason why they died is they actually … thought they could help the other Marines that were drowning,” Candelaria said. But it’s the lives they led and acts like that he wants to immortalize.

“I’m hoping to bring that out there – that they didn’t just die in Vietnam; they actually had a life prior to Vietnam,” Candelaria said.

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