Mushroom Montoya is good with words, but there was a time when they were insufficient, when he just screamed and ran and screamed some more.
Montoya is serene and witty, a Navy veteran, retired architect, father, community volunteer and now an author who has put into words some of what made him scream as a young man.
He’s written a book, “Viet Nam Body Count,” which he calls a slightly fictionalized account of his two tours of duty during that war. It is painful, funny sometimes, and it manages to give a realistic sense of young men at war.
Montoya’s father served in the Navy during World War II, and Montoya signed up when he turned 18, ready to do his part. But cranking up body counts so that superiors would look good wasn’t what he had in mind.
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In the book, his ship, the USS John Trippe, joins a line of ships just off the coast of Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1971. Montoya was 22 by then and the spotter for the ship’s big gun one day. It was his job to watch the beach through a pair of giant binoculars mounted on a tripod and to identify targets for the gunner.
Montoya saw three young boys carrying a box along the beach. The gunner, who should have waited for Montoya to say whether or not they were enemy combatants, fired on them. Montoya yelled for him to stop, but the gunner fired again. The gunner, a freckle-faced kid, climbed out of the gun mount smiling and celebrating the three kills.
When Montoya said they were civilians, the gunner accused him of spoiling the moment. “ ‘They’re not boys,’ he shrieked, his cheeks turning red. ‘They’re not people, they are just targets! Damn it! I couldn’t do my job if they were people.’ ”
Later that day, Montoya heard the captain say he’d get a promotion if body counts were high enough. That’s when Montoya climbed up to the deck and started running around the smokestack screaming. It became a cleansing and coping ritual for him after dinner each day.
His crewmates got used to it, and most talked about the craziness of what they were doing as the quest for more bodies increased. Killing enemy soldiers was war, but blowing up a village, blowing up a church to raise the body count was something else.
I met Montoya a decade ago because of his volunteer work and wrote a column about him in 2003 when he was a project manager for the federal General Services Administration (GSA). He retired in 2008, and he and his wife, Denise, moved to Long Beach, Calif., to care for her mother. But they’re in town to visit friends and give a couple of readings. We talked about the book before a reading at Midori Teriyaki Wok in Auburn.
Montoya spent four years in a Catholic seminary high school and said what he learned there put him in two camps: He was taught to do his duty, and he was taught all life is sacred. In Vietnam, he said, those two mindsets created “a conflict I wasn’t able to reconcile. That’s why I ran around screaming.”
And his patriotism, instilled by his father, ran deep. “The only question I had about the military was which branch to join.”
Montoya performed his duty to the best of his ability, despite his misgivings, and it pained him every day. He sought and received an early discharge, but only after serving two tours in Vietnam.
He always liked writing and thought from the start he’d like to do a book about his experiences, so he had asked friends and relatives to save the letters he was sending them.
His initial plan was to give them to a relative who was a writer and have her put something together. But his time in Vietnam didn’t turn out the way he imagined, so he put the idea aside.
He carried on with his life, eventually becoming an architect for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Long Beach. In 1991, his wife got a job in King County and they moved to Renton, and he went to work for the GSA.
His oldest son, Jeremy, had followed his grandfather, father and aunt into the Navy straight out of high school. After his enlistment, he joined the Naval Reserve while attending college.
One weekend heading back to his reserve unit from lunch, his motorcycle collided with a car. Jeremy was 20.
The Montoyas donated his organs and they became active in supporting organ donation.
Montoya dedicated the book to parents who have lost children no matter what side of the Vietnam War they were on, as well as to soldiers and civilians who died or were harmed. “We suffer for the rest of your lives when our children die,” he said.
For years, he would choke up at the thought of Vietnam. He volunteered at the VA, but that was emotionally difficult for him. Change came though. He was being treated after a second heart attack, and the doctors at the VA hospital suggested he join a group for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), something he’d never considered.
“That became my safety net,” he said.
Visiting the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., helped, too, as did the coping tools he learned, after his son’s death, from The Compassionate Friends, an organization that supports families that have experienced the death of a child.
A friend invited him to join a writers group, and two years ago he started writing the book. The first year he would write a chapter as he thought of incidents. Sometimes it became too painful, and Denise would suggest he write about something funny. The second year he took all the chapters and put them together and edited them.
Writing didn’t put the pain to rest, he said, but he hopes it will help people think of war differently. There ought to be better ways to resolve conflicts, he said.
He’s pretty sure most people know by now that comparing body counts isn’t the right way.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org