Pala resident and Vietnam War veteran Art Lopez, 64, received a special honor on Nov. 14. Decades after serving his country in an exceptional way, he was personally presented with a Bronze Star Medal by United States Marine Corps Brigadier General (Ret.) M.A. Johnson, Jr. at s special luncheon held at the Pala Band of Mission Indians administration headquarters. The Bronze Star Medal is awarded for bravery, heroism, or meritorious service.
Lopez, who was an E5 Sergeant in the Army, said, “I volunteered my entire time in the field, because I didn’t want to come back and have shiny shoes – that’s not what I thought the war was about.”
“Being young and being an Indian, I wanted to earn my feathers, I wanted to be a warrior – so I volunteered and I did what I did out there on operations that I was a part of, the number of battles I was a part of and things I went through when I was there. I stuck it out and I did my job.” Lopez admitted he stayed in the front lines longer than he knew he should, but he was determined to do it.
The ceremony, put into motion by Lopez’s childhood friend, Richard Garcia, was to be a way to officially honor Lopez’s military service in Vietnam among the Tribe’s people.
Garcia, who is secretary of the American Indian Veterans Association in Southern California said, “This moment is historical for Art and the rest of the Tribe’s people.”
Lopez belongs to the Torres-Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian Tribe and grew up in San Jacinto before enlisting in the Army which led to his military service in Vietnam. Immediately following Lopez’s tour in Vietnam, in recognition of his efforts during the war, he received his Bronze Star by mail.
Because Lopez received the Bronze Star by mail without presentation when he returned home from Vietnam, when he would tell people about his award, he said they often wouldn’t believe him because it was never officially presented to him.
With the medal never presented to him in ceremony, Lopez said, “Through the years I didn’t really care, because I was young, but now that I’m older and I have all my grandchildren, I think it’s a great thing now that I can share it with all my family and friends.”
Garcia invited USMC Brigadier General (Ret.) M.A. Johnson Jr. to come to Pala and officially present the Bronze Star Award to Lopez. Nearly 100 friends and family members of Lopez attended the event. Lopez has lived in Pala for 13 years.
When Johnson made the presentation, he spoke of the real meaning behind the military motto, “band of brothers.” He explained that despite being a USMC Brigadier General in charge of 1,500 Marines, he and Lopez shared the same combat experiences during the war in Vietnam and that universally brought them together as a “band of brothers.” Because of that, Brig. Gen. M.A. Johnson Jr. said, “Art Lopez, that’s the reason I consider it my honor to be with you here today, to participate in this ceremony.”
At the conclusion of the presentation, bird singers and bird dancers performed while friends and family of Art Lopez were treated to lunch.