Decades after Vietnam, Calif. veteran gets his medals
The Modesto Bee
MODESTO, Calif. — For decades, Joe Centeno kept the war stories to himself.
By day, he was a grocery meat cutter. By night, he drank and drank, trying to float away jungle images from Southeast Asia of dying soldiers, Agent Orange, tanks and choppers.
Eventually, the Turlock resident found the Modesto Vet Center and sympathetic brothers haunted by similar nightmares. And on Wednesday, the world found him.
In a sharp reversal from years of obscurity, Centeno was saluted by a congressman surrounded by newspaper and TV cameras and applauding veterans who honored his heroism, 45 years after the fact.
"This is long overdue," U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham told Centeno, 65, in a private moment, just before heading to the ceremony, where Denham presented him with seven belated medals, badges and citations.
A stirring narrative accompanied the flashiest — the Army Commendation Medal with V Device. It describes how he held off North Vietnamese fighters in August 1968, almost single-handedly, in a five-hour shootout after tanks on both sides of his were disabled during an attack on a heavily fortified enemy camp.
"(Centeno) ignored the intensive hostile fire as he maintained an exposed position atop his vehicle and directed devastating fire on the entrenched enemy force," the citation reads.
With most of his force obliterated, the enemy launched a concentrated ground attack on his remaining tank. That proved fatal, said Centeno, comparing the rush of soldiers to eager children going for a newly downed piñata.
"They came all in one group" instead of scattered out, he said, making easy targets for his .50-caliber machine gun. "I just opened it up, and they fell."
The body count, when the smoke literally cleared: 45.
A year of heavy jungle fighting spanning parts of 1968 and 1969, including the enemy's crushing, surprise attacks during the Tet Offensive, filled Centeno's head with unforgettable images:
- Walking with a buddy who stepped on a land mine, shortly after chatting about the randomness of those who died and those who lived. Centeno took shrapnel bits in a knee; his friend was cut in two.
- Loading dead and wounded on a helicopter, and seizing a gunner's position to provide cover fire when the man was struck by bullets
- Hand-to-hand combat, including being stuck in the palm by a punji stick and bashing a combatant with a shovel
- Swinging his tank-mounted machine gun, whose barrel was "red as a hot pepper" from firing so many rounds, to scald an enemy soldier who had climbed Centeno's tank
- Wheeling a prisoner around as Centeno was rushed by another combatant, who mistakenly stabbed the man before Centeno shot the attacker
"It's a survival thing," Centeno said, quietly recounting experiences after the ceremony.
"You don't get used to it. You say, 'I'm here, I've got so much ammo, I'll make the best of it.' You pray God and you go do your job."
When it was over, Centeno, a Texas native, shunned attention and tried to forget. The next period of his life was marred by a failed marriage and alcoholism.
"There is drinking," he said, "and there is drinking. I opened and closed bars."
Twenty-two years ago, he remarried and moved to Turlock. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, combined with a doctor's warning about liver damage, supplied a wake-up call that saved his life, he said.
A relative of his wife, Louise, put him in touch with veterans late in life. He now attends weekly group therapy at the Modesto Vet Center and put some of his exploits in Chapter 9 of "The Conflict That Was a War; In Vietnam and at Home," a book produced last year by local veterans.
Centeno suspects that personal differences with an officer in the jungle kept some of his stories out of the official record.
"I thought, 'That's OK. I have more important things to do; stay alive.' "
But enough documentation survived, partly through military media, to enable Denham's office, the Army and the National Personnel Records Center to approve the awards in two short months.
Wednesday's ceremony helped close another wound, Centeno said.
"Today is the first time I've really opened up," he said. "My wife says, 'You never say anything.' Today I did."