Forty-four long years ago, Michael Gomez left the Vietnam War with haunting memories and one Bronze Star Medal for gallantry in battle.
"I put it in a box and forgot about it," he said with a wry smile at a veterans clinic in South San Jose, where he is both a patient and a volunteer.
One day soon, he should receive three more Bronze Stars in the mail. In a classic goof, the Army forgot to grant him those medals when he left Vietnam in 1969. To its credit, the Army admitted the mistake in a letter to him a few weeks ago.
But for Gomez, his volunteer work on behalf of fellow veterans means more than the belated honors for his wartime heroics.
"The medals really don't mean much to me," he said as he took inventory of syringes, bandages and catheters. "I'm doing this to help veterans and to give back to the VA for helping me."
Apparently, more than a few medals go ungranted, buried in uncertainty like those missing in action.
John Rowan, president of the Vietnam Veterans Association, said "lots of guys left Vietnam not knowing" about decorations they had earned.
"Most guys didn't give a damn," Rowan said, "and didn't bother to check."
If and when medals show up, Rowan said, a local congressman usually hosts an award ceremony. But getting Gomez to any medal party will take some doing.
"They can do it without me," he said. "I won't be there."
Most Monday mornings at 7 a.m., Gomez shows up for volunteer duty at the Veterans Administration clinic. He slips on a maroon volunteer vest and slaps on a baseball cap embroidered with the symbols of the famous 101st Airborne Division. He looks as lean now as he did as a young radio operator and rifleman who jumped out of planes into battle.
After completing his volunteer work, he often attends personal or group counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder. In therapy, sufferers typically are asked to pinpoint the moment something within them cracked.
"For me, it was the cotton balls with opium that they taped to their noses," Gomez said, trying to remember a battle in the A Shau Valley during the Tet Offensive in 1968.
He was in a foxhole defending the perimeter of the First Brigades' camp when North Vietnamese Army regulars stormed his position. He fired as fast as he could as they overran his position in an obvious suicide attack.
"They put the cotton opium balls on because they knew they were going to die," he said. "I remember lining up the bodies in the morning. The cotton balls were still on."
He would fight in three other major operations, as well as a number of search and destroy missions, which took an emotional toll on him.
"This is what the commanders and generals told us," Gomez recalled. "They told us that if we found a village that wasn't on the map, to destroy it."
He was never into politics and had no opinion of the war one way or the other when he was drafted into service in 1967, but he was a proud draftee. His father had fought in the second World War, his grandfather in the first. Still, he began to question his war.
"When the shooting starts, you begin to think why you are there," he said. "To them, we were coming into their house and trying to take it away from them. I began to understand that."
After he was discharged with honor in 1969, Gomez went home to Arizona, put his bronze star in a box and tried to forget the war. Only he couldn't. The nightmares, extreme anxiety, fear of noisy crowds and anger soon drove him to a local veterans clinic.
"They told me there was nothing wrong with me," he said. "What did I know? They just sent me home with nothing."
On the good side, he found work as a meat-cutter and met his future wife, Becky. They moved first to San Francisco and then to San Jose in 1975, where they bought a house in Yum Yum Tract, a suburban subdivision with sugary, street names like Peanut Brittle, Gumdrop and Taffy. They started a family and seemed to be living the American dream except for one thing.
"He clammed up, wouldn't talk to anybody about the war," Becky said during an interview at their home. "He worked hard all the time, never wanted to be late for work, never wanted to miss a day of work. It affected our social life. We didn't have a normal one."
The stress erupted again after he retired. He didn't have work to lean on anymore.
Gomez's hard shell began to soften about five years ago when his son-in-law, NBC Bay Area reporter Damian Trujillo, invited him and two Vietnam veteran friends to visit the national Vietnam War memorial, a granite wall etched with the names of the fallen.
"They broke down and cried and cried and hugged each other," Becky Gomez said. "That was the big opening for Mike."
Big enough for him to seek counseling for PTSD and march in his first Veterans Day Parade. Big enough to let his daughter, Monica Trujillo, frame his Bronze Star. Big enough to ask the Army why he never got his "jump wings" badge for passing parachute school.
When they looked into it, the Army Board for Correction of Military Records confirmed the wings and more. In astonishing matter-of-fact language, the board wrote he was due three more Bronze Star Medals, bringing his total to four -- one for every major battle in which he fought.
The Trujillos rushed to spread the stunning news on social media. Dad to receive medals 44 years late!
"I told them not to put it on Facebook," Gomez said.
They did anyway. VVA president Rowan said it's often takes pleas from their children or grandchildren to get vets to open up and check their military records.
The belated medals are turning Gomez into a celebrity at the veterans clinic, another honor he'd rather not have.
"I'm more proud of my work as a volunteer," he said. "I'm just trying to help veterans get the help I didn't get back then."