PUEBLO, Colo. — Just before Christmas, and 61 years since he left the battlefields of Korea, Edmund Vallejo opened a small envelope from the day’s mail. It contained five Naval service awards — including a bronze star and combat medal — and a beribboned medal from a long-dead Korean president.
“I was in shock at first, and I’ve seen a lot of Marines die after they went into shock,” said the 83-year-old Vallejo, a retired longtime School District 60 teacher, administrator and superintendent.
And then he got angry, at a government that neglected to say thank you when he completed his Korean combat tour as a Naval photographer, and refused to help him when he asked years later.
He inquired nearly 14 years ago about getting at least his Korean service medal. After months of waiting, the mail brought a terse letter of denial that offered no apology, no reason, no hope that the decision might someday be reversed.
So he sees the December surprise as a long-overdue thank-you of sorts for a few years he’s spent many years trying to forget.
Until unexplainable anxiety and horror-laden dreams convinced him it was time to remember.
That was 20 years ago. He shared some of his memories, as accompaniment to photos he took in Korea, in a 2010 book.
Writing it was cathartic, he said, but the darkest demons remain hidden, rising stubbornly to the surface when he least expects them to.
He confronts them with help from private professionals he found after the Veterans Administration declared him disabled, but said they couldn’t provide the kind of help he was seeking.
Dark memories aside, Vallejo said his military service was one of several key turning points in his life.
It led him to education instead of the medical career he’d been aiming for during a single year at Regis University before quitting to “join the Navy and see the world before deciding what I wanted to do.”
He eventually realized that what he wanted to do was teach.
He had been an English teacher for 14 years when he reluctantly took his first administrative job. Leaving the classroom “was the most difficult decision of my life, next to asking my wife to marry me,” he said with a solemn nod.
But he found his way back to teaching in retirement, where he used his skills as a photographer, mountaineer and teacher to work one-on-one with dropouts who wanted to earn a GED or return to high school as competent students.
“The most important thing I ever did was teaching, and some of the best teaching I did wasn’t in the classroom,” he said.
Whether in front of a blackboard and a gaggle of students, or beside a high mountain lake with a youngster who’d never been outside of Pueblo, Vallejo said he expected three things of his young charges: “I demanded — and I gave them in return — trust, respect and love.” Those deeds have rippled out into the wider world in a thousand ways he’d never dreamed.
Tears spilled from his eyes as he shared the most precious reward of his career. One of the dropouts he tutored sent him a copy of the essay he wrote to earn his GED.
“It was addressed, ‘To my father,’ ’’ Vallejo said. “The boy never had a father. But he saw one in me. How about that?”