As Vietnam War veterans Joe Elizondo and Gene "Chico" Pacheco sat together on a couch in Elizondo's home last Wednesday, the scene ran the gamut of emotions.
Out of view of the lights and cameras, Margie Pacheco and Jeanne Elizondo quietly watched from a corner as their Marines picked up where they left off 54 years ago.
"I was worried about it because I told him, I said ‘I don’t want any haunting memories to come back,' " Margie said about the reunion. " 'I don’t want — when you see pictures,' especially since he had forgotten a lot of things — I don’t want for him to have to feel like 'I gotta go talk to a doctor because I remembered all of this, and it just comes back tenfold. Especially after 53 years.' "
But as the men traded smiles, hearty laughs, playful insults, punches to the arm, and, occasionally tears, Margie relaxed as she dabbed at tears of her own.
“I think it’s a good thing," she said. "It’s good. It’s good."
Margie and Gene have been together for 53 years. Jeanne and Joe have known each other since 1971 but didn't get married until 2003.
Both women said they heard stories that day that they'd never heard in all that time.
"I never pushed him to ‘Maybe you should do this, maybe . . .’ because when I first married him there was so much – the trauma that he had," Margie said. "His recollection — his timelines are wrong, and there are certain things that he didn’t remember."
Gene was fresh from the war when he and Margie met at a dance on Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio in 1968. So fresh that he was still healing from being hit by grenade schrapnel, which took his eye and left him with a brain injury.
"He has a scar right around the hairline," she said. "When I first met him it was red. It was red. I mean it was as red as can be. And you see it now, and it has really smoothed out.”
Joe also left Vietnam with a physical reminder — scarring and residual pain and infections from a gunshot wound that penetrated his jaws.
But it's the emotional scars that cut the deepest. Both Margie and Jeanne said their husbands didn't participate in military events or talk about their service for a very long time.
"Emotionally, he cries a lot because he remembers a lot now," Jeanne said. "Everything is coming back to him. And it's hard."
On both Joe — and Jeanne, who said coping is hard as a veteran's wife.
"The more he tells me, I feel like I'm getting very aggressive," she said. "And I feel it. And I told him 'I don't want to be like this. . . . I tell him 'I don't want to be living in Vietnam.' "
Life isn't all bad, though. When Joe isn't thinking about Vietnam, she can relax, too.
"As far as me and him — we have a good time," she said. "If I can put that (on) the back burner, we go out, we go gambling, whatever. I'm fine."
But eventually the pain — physical and emotional — comes flooding back, sometimes decades later, making some days unbearable for veterans.
"As soon as he encounters people that he wants to tell them about Vietnam, I just keep on walking because I know he needs to talk to somebody about that," she said. "I hang in there because I love him and will to the end."
Margie said Gene channels his PTSD differently.
"I’ve always let him do what he felt was right for the family,” she said. “And I think that has helped him control his PTSD — control whatever he was going through — because it kept the Vietnam stuff away."
He also channels his anxiety into his work as a computer programmer and, recently, fixing computers.
"I can go to my computer and I say ‘What are you doing?’ He says ‘I’m upgrading your computer.’ So that has helped him, I believe – in my opinion – that it has helped him tremendously, because we have met people that they couldn’t do anything . . . they couldn’t move forward."
And despite the initial fears both women may have felt about the reunion, they both think it was ultimately a good thing for their husbands.
"I think it’s going to be OK," Margie said. "Right now, I think the fact that (Gene) was excited; the fact that Joe – that his (outgoing, playful) personality – I think he’s remembering that. Not so much what they had to do, you know, and I’m hoping that it stays that way. I’m hoping."