‘I’m here…and they’re gone.’ A Janesville veteran’s day of remembering

JANESVILLE, Wis. — “How is it possible that I’m here today, and they were sitting right next to me, and they’re gone?”

Sgt. Al Pacheco and his U.S. Army buddies Sgt. Upton Ashley and Pvt. Kenneth “Red” Sanders had been in Vietnam for just three months when it happened.

The three of them were in Vietnam headed north on November 3, 1966. They were part of a ten-vehicle convoy on Route 13, in the second-to-last vehicle when someone stepped out by the road side and ignited a 500-pound bomb.

“I was in an 11-ton vehicle, it blew in the air. It blew me out,” Sgt. Pacheco reflected, now a 79-year-old Janesville resident. “Those two individuals, my friends, were killed instantly.”

Decades later, he’s now a crucial member of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 236, helping put on ceremonies with other area veterans just like the one held Monday in Janesville at Traxler Park. A silent march kicked off the event, which featured music, speeches, and honor guard ceremonies.

But at every event like this he helps with, it’s Ashley and Sanders he’s still remembering.

“They were like brothers,” he said. They’d gone to basic training together, and the two of them were the first casualties of his battalion in Vietnam.

He’s now the lone survivor, still battling survivor’s guilt. It’s easier to talk about now, though, then when he first came back after a two-year stint in the army.

Receiving a purple heart and a bronze star for his service, he returned and resumed his job at the now-shut down Janesville General Motors manufacturing plant where he’d been working prior to getting drafted–three years into his marriage.

“When I came back, my wife used to get upset because I wouldn’t talk to her too much,” he recalled. He’s stayed in touch with his friends’ families–one in Wisconsin, one in Virginia, he says.

But it’s ceremonies like the one in Janesville that serve to help him–and everyone else–keep remembering. The attitude towards Vietnam veterans has changed since when they first came back, he said, when he felt their reception was more hostile. He’s dedicated a lot of his life in recent years to defending their legacy.

“To honor all the veterans, of all the wars, and especially to those who gave their all,” he said. “That’s what this day is for, to honor them.”