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54 years later: A tearful reunion between two South Texas Marines

Joe and Gene VIF.jpg
Posted at 5:54 PM, Oct 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-08 15:33:41-04

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Joe Elizondo remembers vividly the day he shipped off to go to war in Vietnam.

“It wasn’t even 4:35 in the morning and (I heard) ‘Private Elizondo, report to transportation’,” Joe recalled all those years ago, when he was a brand-new 20-year-old Marine.

Vietnam is a war that is left so many like Joe with deep scars, trying to find serenity.

“I didn’t even like to talk about it,” he said.

Just a kid from South Texas, Joe was forced to grow up fast. He was an assistant M-60 machine gunner who was so in over his head. He felt lucky to be under the watchful guidance of his gunner, his friend 'Chico.'

“Chico was an extremely well trained Marine,” Joe said.

'Chico,' as Joe called him, was actually a few years younger than Joe, but Joe still looked up to him.

“I think I was the luckiest son of a gun in the world,” Joe said.

Both men were part of the famous 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, an infantry battalion that was nicknamed the Magnificent Bastards. In fact, many books and movies were made based on the battalion’s actions on the battlefield.

With eyes wide open, they were thrown into a number of firefights

Joe recalled the night Chico was sent out on patrol to conduct an enemy ambush. That’s when a grenade exploded. Chico was struck in the right eye by shrapnel that eventually entered his brain. The blast left him blind in that eye.

At the time, Joe was already recovering from other injuries. As fate would show, both men actually wound up in the same hospital room aboard the USS Sanctuary. They were together one last time.

“And I never saw Chico again," Joe said. "Never."

Joe was sent back to the front lines. He had just received word that his brother, David, was killed in action.

“He was my gorgeous brother," Joe remembered. "We were supposed to go into business together.”

And now, Joe was also without his battle brother, Chico.

“And I was really . . . I was scared when I left the ship and I said goodbye to Chico,“ he said.

But what stayed with Joe was every tactic that Chico taught him on the battlefield.

“He saved my life,” Joe said. “And I’m not here because of no other reason except Chico’s passing on to me things that were important."

Joe never thought he would ever see Chico again.

“I looked for him, and then we thought he was dead,” he said.

In May, someone named Gene Pacheco responded to an KRIS 6 web story about Joe that ran in 2017. At the time, Joe was looking for the person who saved his life in Vietnam. Gene shared his email address in his response.

Could Gene really be Joe’s long-lost battle buddy from more than 50 years ago?

READ MORE: VIF reunion, Joe Elizondo and Gene Pachco's families also suffer the effects of war along with their loved ones

Joe’s wife, Jeanne, sent an email message to Gene.

KRIS 6 News contacted both men and arranged a reunion, and both men met at Joe’s house.

“Hey Marine!" said an excited Gene Pacheco before a long embrace with his old assistant gunner. "Semper Fi, dude.”

“You look good, Chico,” responded Joe.

“You’re the only person that called me 'Chico,' " laughed Gene. "I don’t mind. After 54 years, you can call me anything. Just don’t call me late for lunch."

Memories from five decades ago came rushing back.

“He kept me laughing and joking," Gene quipped. "I said, someone tell him we’re at war in Vietnam."

After all these years, these battle brothers can finally find peace.

“I lost my brother, but I’ve got another one," Joe said, as he put his arm around Gene.

“Brothers for life,” Gene responded.