View Full Version : Mother fights 30-year battle for son who died in Vietnam

05-14-03, 06:40 AM
May 13, 2003

Mother fights 30-year battle for son who died in Vietnam

Associated Press

BELEN, N.M. — Elizabeth Martinez says she finally has the evidence in hand to prove the body of the soldier sent home from Vietnam by the Army three decades ago was not that of her son.
Martinez, 79, and her family said a DNA test performed by a North Carolina laboratory shows the corpse they buried was not that of Pfc. Eddie Martinez Jr.

The Army’s Mortuary Affairs and Casualty Support Division asked its own lab to review the test after intervention by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.

“What most disturbs me about this case is that, in the face of what appears to be contrary evidence, the Army has not budged from its original position,” Bingaman said. “If the Army made a mistake, it should own up to it. The Martinez family deserves nothing less.”

The Army told the family that Eddie, who was 20 years old, committed suicide in his barracks at Binh Dinh.

But Martinez’s suspicions about the identity of the body began when she said she looked through the viewing window of her son’s coffin and noticed the arch in his eyebrows was missing, his hair color was too dark and that the body seemed too big.

When the Army returned his belongings, they included a man’s wedding band although Eddie wasn’t married.

Army officials insisted that dental records and fingerprint analysis confirmed by the FBI are proof they sent Eddie Martinez Jr. home. Two autopsies by the New Mexico Office of Medical Investigator also confirmed the identity and the finding of suicide.

The Martinez family buried the remains at Our Lady of Belen Cemetery, not far from the small home where Martinez lived for 34 years.

“They did not know at the time what they could do or what they should do,” said Walter Westfall, president of David Westfall Veterans Foundation, which owns and operates the Vietnam Veterans National Memorial in Angel Fire, N.M.

Eventually, Elizabeth Martinez started writing letters. Bingaman and Sen. Pete Domenici’s offices got involved. She contacted Westfall’s organization for help. She wrote the Army seeking an independent investigation of the death.

“If I knew he had been killed in battle, it would not be as horrible as what I am going through now,” she wrote in a March 26, 1969, letter to Eddie’s Army commander.

Through the Freedom of Information Act, Martinez received a copy of a partial military pay voucher dated March 4, 1969 — nearly a month after the Army said her son died. It was signed Eddie A. Martinez. The family says the handwriting appears to Eddie’s.

Some familiar with the case speculate a mix-up of bodies on the trip from Saigon to the United States might have occurred.

Martinez, however, feared her son was the victim of foul play and an Army cover-up.

By December 1979, Elizabeth Martinez saved enough money to pay for an exhumation and autopsy.

Afterward, New Mexico chief medical investigator, James T. Weston, concluded that fingerprints taken from the body matched Eddie Martinez’s. He stated that skin samples of the wound area were examined by one of the country’s top specialists, who supported the suicide conclusion.

But the autopsy also stated that the body was 67 inches — 5 feet 7 inches tall. An Army identification card listed him as 66 inches — 5 feet 6 inches tall. Eddie’s height was listed as 5 feet 9 inches in a Belen Police Department record.

The corpse had brown eyes. Eddie had hazel-green eyes.

Eddie had an “H” shaped scar under his left arm from being stabbed in Belen. While in Vietnam, he sustained a cut on his left ear that required 10 stitches. Neither scar was mentioned in the autopsy report.

During another exhumation and autopsy, the team of pathologists reported finding the two scars previously missed.

Afterward, Weston wrote a personal letter to Martinez, apologizing for not being more sensitive.

“We erred distinctly in believing that a legal identification by fingerprints would meet your personal requirements. … It is human nature to deny the loss of a loved one with virtually every mechanism possible to the last resort,” he wrote.

Mary Jane Silva, Martinez’s daughter, was 12 years old when Eddie was reported dead and got the idea that DNA testing might solve the mystery.

Silva contacted Tim Stepetic, associate director at OMI, about a test.

At the family’s request, he found hair follicles taken from one of the earlier autopsies and sent them to a private DNA testing agency, Laboratory Corporation of America, based in North Carolina.

Westfall said the DNA results make him more convinced that the body isn’t that of Eddie Martinez.

Lt. Col. Ronnie Long Jr. of the Army’s Mortuary Affairs and Casualty Support Division informed Bingaman in November that the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville, Md., would review the test results. Long said the family needed to answer questions about the way the samples were taken and preserved.

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press