Forty years later, a final salute

Abdulrahim is a Times staff writer.

Yolanda Montiel was only 10 years old when her older brother Luis Palacios was killed in Vietnam. Her memories of him are few but endearing, like the time he bought her a yellow hat or when he gave her piggyback rides.

Over the years, Yolanda's siblings and her late mother would tell her stories about Luis, which included the nickname he gave her.

"I didn't remember who used to call me rag doll," she said, "and it was him."

The day the family learned that Luis had been killed, a relative came to Yolanda's school to pick her up and on the way home tried to explain death.

The 19-year-old Marine was on a rescue mission on June 6, 1968, when his helicopter was hit by enemy fire and crashed. Lance Cpl. Luis Palacios was one of four passengers on the downed aircraft presumed dead but whose bodies were not found.

Then, in early September, Yolanda's family received the news they had been waiting for for 40 years: a U.S. search team had found some of Luis' remains. He was identified through a DNA sample that Yolanda had given to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command more than a decade earlier.

Last week, Luis' remains were returned to California.

On Thursday, his family held a viewing at a funeral home in Bellflower. Yolanda, 51, walked slowly toward the open casket, partially draped by a U.S. flag. Inside lay a dress-blue Marine uniform and black rosary beads. Yolanda placed her hand on the gold buttons of the suit coat, decorated with four medals, including the Purple Heart and Vietnam Service Medal.

Underneath was all that remained of her brother: a tooth and an arm bone.

Earlier in the day, Yolanda held the bone that had been placed in a sealed plastic bag. She kissed it and told her brother she loved him.

"I definitely wanted to see the remains," she said. "I wanted to hold them. I wanted to say goodbye, because that's Luis."

Since his death, the lives of his nine brothers and sisters have moved on. They had children and grandchildren of their own. They mourned the deaths of their parents.

But their memories of Luis, who grew up in South Los Angeles, remained frozen in the '60s. They recalled a shy, teenage boy with a baby face and dark eyes who was eager to join the Marines because a brother and a brother-in-law already had enlisted.

"Mom, if you only understood I need to do this for myself," Martha Chavez, his oldest step-sister, remembered him pleading with their mother.

In 1968, the family held a memorial ceremony for Luis at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, Cypress, where a nameplate was laid for him.

"It was like, 'Why are we doing this when there is nobody there?' " Chavez remembers thinking at the time.

But the recovery of Luis' remains has made his family members feel like they are experiencing his death all over again.

"It's like reliving the ceremony," said stepsister Virginia Poyorena-Govea, 66.

"But we're doing it right this time," Yolanda said.

Luis was given a full military burial Friday at Forest Lawn in Cypress that was attended by Marines and dozens of Vietnam veterans motorcycle club members. As a member of the Patriot Guard Riders lowered a large black-and-white MIA/POW flag in the direction of the casket, seven Marines fired a volley of three shots into the air.

Luis was the last missing Marine to return home from retired Col. Bill Negron's 1st Battalion, 4th Marines' Charlie Company. Of the company's 140 members, three were still missing at the end of the war.

Negron drove all night from Arizona to attend Luis' funeral. He said it was a relief to finally have all his men accounted for.

Negron said he has visited the helicopter crash site -- an area he described as being like the rolling hills of Appalachia mixed in with lush jungle terrain -- to pay his respects.

"If I was going to spend 40 years [away] from my family, that's not a bad place to be," he said. "But it's better here."

Luis' father, Pete Sr., used to tell his children he wanted to be buried near his son in Vietnam. But Yolanda told him that was impossible. When he passed away in 1984, he was buried at Forest Lawn.

Luis' remains were buried under a pine tree, a few feet from his father.


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