It was one of those gray March days and the weather was torn between winter and spring. But when the phone next to the window began to ring in the small but tidy apartment of long ago Puebloan Bill Lucero, it wasn’t only the sky but the whole world that turned suddenly darker.
“I picked it up,” said the Presiding Disciplinary Judge for the Colorado Supreme Court, “and could tell immediately from my mom’s voice that something was terribly wrong.” It was the call, the call no one wanted to get in 1968.
His mother’s voice, her words, were pained. Her son and Lucero’s younger brother, Pat, “had been in a firefight.” The Army “didn’t know where he was…he was MIA,” missing in action.
News of his younger brother was not unlike the news families all across the country were getting during the Viet Nam War. It was raging and no more so than that year. An average of nearly 400 American soldiers were dying each week. By year’s end, nearly 17,000 U.S. troops would be dead.
A day or so after the call, the Army confirmed that ‘Little Lucero,’ the name the eastside kids hung on Pat to distinguish him from his big brother, was no longer MIA but KIA. Confirmation arrived, Lucero recalled, “when we saw a gentleman dressed in military garb” come to the Lucero family home. “He told us that Pat had been killed.”
Within days, Specialist Lucero arrived back in Pueblo where Saint Leander, the spiritual mooring for the city’s eastside Catholics, would host his funeral mass. Every pew was filled. Friends, family, teachers, coaches, kids who missed school to attend, had all come to say goodbye to Pat.
Like so many brothers, the Luceros were inseparable. Where you found one, you usually found the other. When school was out, they’d be on what could only generously be called ‘the ballfield,’ an open stretch of the eastside where basepaths were riddled with rocks and gravel, the block where baby boom boys played endless football games in the day, hide-and-seek after dark or the nearby prairie where they, ironically, played ‘Army.’
The light shone bright on the Lucero brothers. Bill was the star high school quarterback. Pat, his backup. It was like that until the Army and the war drew up different paths for the pair.
More than a half century later, men like Lucero and countless others, no longer young, but still big brothers, have only memories. For ‘big Lucero,’ the memory is frozen in their last photograph together. It’s an image that exposes what could not be seen back then. “The picture,” said Lucero pausing, “you could just see in his face that this was real.” The ride to the airport, he recalled, “was quiet all the way.” Once there, the brothers said goodbye, their last one. Back then, last goodbyes---final goodbyes---between brothers were common in every state.
When the flight was called, said Lucero, the brothers shook hands and said a few words, just a few. “Today, there’s a lot of hugging and kissing with my family,” he said. “We didn’t do a lot of that. I look back and wish I would have hugged him.” I just told him, ‘Brother, please come home.’
After his brother died, Lucero finished college and, later, law school. His journey has taken him through stints as both an assistant Denver District Attorney and assistant U.S. Attorney. But Viet Nam and the price it exacted on thousands of families still echoes.
Pat Lucero may not have been special or unique. But friends shared by the Lucero brothers---separated by only fourteen months---certainly thought of them that way. A number of those Pueblo friends made as far back as elementary school, said Lucero, have periodically stayed in touch. A handful even have sons named Pat.
On Veterans Day 2020, Lucero and the nation pause to honor the sacrifices made by all nation’s veterans, and to also honor the fallen, from the American Revolution to Afghanistan and Iraq. But for the Baby Boom Generation, Viet Nam still causes pause and pain. The names of 58,320 airmen, Marines, sailors, and soldiers are engraved on The Viet Nam Veterans Memorial, The Wall. Included in the names are also those of eight women, seven Army, one Air Force.
What would the ‘kid’ brothers or big brothers who never returned home have become? It’s a question Lucero sometimes ponders. “I know that many of the guys he hung around with became successful,” he said. “With Pat? Who knows,” he wonders. “He had such great talent.” But the younger Lucero may be the reason his older brother found himself ascending the judicial ladder.
Applying for and then attending law school, said Lucero, was, in part, because of his late brother. “I needed to do everything I could, in any way, to make sure that he and I, the Lucero brothers would be remembered.”
Today his brother is memorialized in two libraries. One, not far from where the younger Lucero died, in Viet Nam’s Quang Tri Province. The other, in Pueblo, across the street from the brothers’ childhood parish, Saint Leander
Now two, soon to be three generations will have passed since Lucero shook his brothers hand at the Colorado Springs Airport and said goodbye. But not a day has passed that he has not thought of him. Despite time slowly culling the Baby Boom generation, one thing can never change, said Lucero. “He was my brother.”