Gold Star families: Tony Cordero was 5 when his dad was shot down over Vietnam — now he helps others who have suffered similar loss

by in News

On this Memorial Day weekend, consider placing an extra chair at your table for the true guests of honor — men and women in uniform who gave it their all.

But the chair isn’t just for the fallen. It’s also for the parents, spouses, sons and daughters who never had the chance to say goodbye to loved ones.

As a 5-year-old, Tony Cordero couldn’t comprehend how his father could just vanish during a bombing mission over Vietnam.

Even today, his father’s gravestone at Arlington National Cemetery shares another name because it was unknown if the few remains found were those of the pilot, the navigator or both.

Now, a half-century later, Cordero shares how young innocence could have been life-saving.

“It’s a challenge for a child that age to understand what must have been a horribly violent death,” he says, “and there’s no way to reconcile it.”

Yet for much of his life, Cordero has worked toward reconciliation — not only for himself but for thousands of others.

Three decades ago, Cordero and several other children of men and women killed in uniform established a nonprofit (now on Facebook) called, “Sons and Daughters In Touch.”

In 2005, hundreds gathered at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, finally received their first-ever Gold Star pins and touched the names of fathers who never had the chance to see their kids grow up.

(Of the more than 58,000 Americans killed in that war, the few women reportedly did not have children.)

As the adult children mourned, they also honored the millions who went before them and the thousands who followed.

As we talk, Cordero hands me a small box. Inside, there’s a medal that reaches across the ages.

Deep roots

Major William Cordero grew up in Santa Barbara and was the first in his family to graduate college.

He went on to become a navigator in the Air Force and in 1963 started advising pilots in the South Vietnam Air Force about the intricacies of flying B-26 prop bombers.

But the major’s story starts much earlier and his family tree traces its roots to arriving in California in 1769.

Tony Cordero points to a photo on the wall of his home that shows the nearly century-old courthouse in Santa Barbara. Above the clock on the tower, there is a an ornate iron fence that evokes the finest of New Orleans ironwork.

Cordero’s grandfather and great-grandfather were blacksmiths and made the decorative railing.

But William Cordero heard a different calling. He joined ROTC as soon as he had the chance and went directly from earning a bachelor’s degree at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles to becoming a commissioned officer in the Air Force.

In 1964, the then-captain moved his family to Clark Air Base in the Philippines and soon was flying bombing missions along the Vietnam-Laos border and disrupting enemy movements on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

With surface to air missiles and guns on the ground that could take out a plane, it was brutal, difficult and dangerous.

On June 22, he kissed his wife goodbye and climbed aboard his B-57 jet. It was the last time he would see his four children and he never got the chance to see his youngest child, Jimmie, born just months after Dad was killed.

At his home in Yorba Linda, Tony Cordero spreads out an array of faded photographs. But it’s an old newspaper article from the San Pedro News Pilot that grabs my attention, a story about posthumous medals given four years after the airman’s status was changed from MIA to KIA.

One citation is for navigating by dead reckoning while facing intense enemy ground fire and still managing to complete a successful attack. That mission resulted in the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Yet it’s the photo that accompanies the story that is so compelling. It shows the airman’s wife, Kathleen, smiling — as wives were trained to do.

It also shows an 8-year-old Tony Cordero who clearly misses his father.

That was a half-century ago this month.

Gold Star origins

I open the box Cordero handed me and a rush of old memories about my own grandfather become fresh again.

Many years ago, my grandmother, Viola Whiting, gave me her husband’s bayonet from World War I, his initials carved deeply into the wood handle, LRW, Leo Robert Whiting.

But it was my own father, a veteran of World War II, who gave me his father’s only surviving medal, one for overseas service during what the medal calls “The Great War For Civilization.”

Both my grandfather and father lived long. Millions more were less fortunate.

Cordero’s brass medal is dated 1930 and he bought it on eBay because, well, he had to. It represents one of the earliest Gold Star efforts, a time when wives were the only ones given Gold Star medals.

Still, there’s a saying about Gold Star medals that is both true and tragic. It’s an honor no one wants.

On one side of the 1930 medal, a ship sails between the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower. On the other side, there’s a statement, “Gold Star pilgrimage to the battlefields of the world war.”

More than 100,000 Americans died in my grandfather’s war. After the gruesome battlefields were tidied up and the bodies buried, an act of Congress sent 6,654 wives to cemeteries across the Atlantic.

Yet for unknown reasons, that Gold Star effort never included children.

Searching for remains

As the years went by, Cordero — like many who have lost a parent who died in uniform — wondered what life would have been like had Dad lived.

At age 30, Cordero struggled with being older than his father when he died and the loss only grew.

“There’s life-long pain,” Cordero allows. “But you learn to put aside any ugly thoughts about how they died and celebrate the life they lived.”

Cordero, an especially tactile man, opens a second small box and asks, “Do you know what this is?”

I touch it. “Sand.”

But this is not just any sand. This is sand from China Beach in Vietnam.

In 2003, Cordero and 50 other sons and daughters of America’s Vietnam veterans killed in action traveled to the country where their fathers perished.

It took two years of meticulous research and planning, but in the end nearly all were able to visit the places where dads died.

In many respects, Cordero points out, the journey was similar to the pilgrimage that the World War I widows made.

Cordero calls it, “A personal ground zero.”

In a sad turn, Cordero quietly reports he was unable to go to the location in Laos where his father’s plane crashed because of especially dense, remote jungle.

Looking up from the old photographs, Cordero turns toward the future and predicts, “In the years ahead, when things settle, the families of men and women killed in Afghanistan and Iraq will want to visit where their parents died.”

Is there’s anything on this Memorial Day weekend that might help the survivors?

Along with the time-honored tradition of honoring Gold Star mothers, Cordero suggests acknowledging the fathers, siblings, sons and daughters of Gold Star families.

Let the healing begin.