A Veteran and a Hunt for Redemption
LOS ANGELES – There they are in the black-and-white snapshot, the deserter and his firstborn son: Big Al and Little Al Moreno, the man who ran from war and the Marine who is running to it.In the photo, it’s October 1968. The son is graduating boot camp, about to head to Vietnam. He’s 22, bolt-straight in his uniform. On one side, his mom squeezes against him. On the other, his father keeps his distance, wearing a trapped half-smile, his workman’s hands hanging awkwardly at his sides. As his son stands tall, he seems to shrivel. He cannot bring himself to embrace his son, to touch his uniform.The son keeps the photo in his living room, to remind him. Without that photo and all it represents, what he is about to do on a sunny afternoon in May makes no sense. Moving briskly around his apartment, he gathers up his wallet and car keys. Under his arm, he tucks a manila folder containing his military records and heads downstairs to his car, where he studies directions to the military recruiting station.It doesn’t show, but he’s nervous. He doesn’t know how they will respond to a 60-year-old ex-Marine asking to be sent to Iraq. Not many men show up asking, nearly 40 years after surviving one war, to plunge into another. Not many come looking to atone for someone else’s crime, one that happened 62 years ago, and which everyone else – the government, his siblings, everyone – believe was paid for long ago.Al Moreno is a Newport Beach private eye and a former Los Angeles police officer. He is divorced and lives alone. Since the day in his teens he learned of it, he has been tormented by his father’s desertion from the Navy on Feb. 14, 1944.For almost two decades, Moreno has been trying to close the gap between the bodies in that snapshot. He’s written to presidents, to congressmen, to the Justice Department, to anyone who might listen. What he wants is simple: a posthumous pardon for his father, who died destitute in 1977, nearly three decades after the Navy released him from the brig with a dishonorable discharge.”He died a broken man both physically and mentally,” Moreno says. “He saw himself as a total failure.”While his father failed his country, Moreno has argued in letter after letter, he also worked tirelessly to raise 12 children. And three of those kids – Al and his two oldest brothers, Artie and Tony – volunteered for the military and shipped off to Vietnam.The Justice Department rebuffed Moreno, explaining that posthumous pardons were not “established practice.”His brothers, the fellow Vietnam vets, support the general goal of a pardon but don’t quite understand what possesses Moreno. “If my brother thinks he can rectify history, that’s great,” says Artie, 59, a forest service employee in Sequoia. “But what is, is.”Moreno’s oldest sister, Irene, who cares nothing for the pardon, recalls that her mother and some of her brothers, including Al, used the desertion against her father in family disputes. The term “yellow-belly” became the ultimate argument weapon. “It tortured my dad,” she says. “I think that’s one of the reasons he’s doing this – to make up for his cruelty to dad.”Moreno acknowledges his relationship with his father was volatile, sometimes violent – they scuffled for years until Big Al found himself overmatched against his growing son – but he insists he’s waging his campaign out of love and duty, not guilt.Moreno heads north on the freeway to meet the Marines. It’s just before 2 p.m. and traffic is light, so the drive shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes. He drives carefully, obeying the speed limit, a sensible sexagenarian. And yet here he is, racing toward war all over again, like he did when he was an angry kid with a hundred street fights behind him.He remains as puzzled now, as then, about why his dad ran the opposite way. He knows this much. His father, a high school dropout who grew up to Mexican-born parents in the San Fernando Valley, was working for an optical company in Bell, Calif., when he decided to enlist as an apprentice seaman in November 1943. He was 24 and promised the Navy two years.On Valentine’s Day in 1944, eight weeks after joining the service, he failed to return from a brief period of leave to his post at the U.S. Naval Training Center in San Diego. The Navy issued a straggler’s reward and sold his effects.As the war roiled, Big Al drove a cab in Tijuana, sneaking back now and then to Los Angeles, where his wife, Trinidad, was living with her parents and receiving support from the Red Cross.On March 4, 1947, apparently tired of running, he surrendered at the Naval Base at Terminal Island. He and his wife already had a daughter, Irene. They also had Al, who was a year old and called by his nickname, Corky.Big Al was court-martialed. For desertion, the Navy sentenced him to six years imprisonment, though he would serve only two and a half. He went home in September 1949, a 30-year-old man with a dishonorable discharge and $25 in his pocket.Little Al was 3, watching a strikingly handsome man with thick forearms lug an olive-drag duffel bag through the door. Years later, he would remember the sweetness in his father’s face, remember thinking, “Wow, that’s my daddy.”Big Al got work hauling furniture, and he was strong enough to hoist huge appliances single-handed onto a dolly, lug a sofa bed up a flight of stairs, twirl a couple kids on each arm. He worked sick or well, rattling across the Southland in his Bobtail truck. “Of anything he could salvage to show his manly worth, it was his work,” Moreno says. “He worked like three men. That’s the kind of soldier he would have been.”But when Moreno thinks of his father, he remembers his rage, his drinking, how often he hit him and his brothers. It was the obliterating fury, as he sees it, of a man who could neither face himself in the mirror nor put his anguish in words.”If you look at the core of his personality, he was a very proud man. His spirit was destroyed, and there was no way to go back and rectify it,” Moreno says. “That’s the cruelest part about it.”As he pulls off the freeway, Moreno wonders how he’s going to tell it. He hasn’t made an appointment at the recruiting station. He’ll have to make his pitch succinct and try not to seem crazy. All they’ll care about is whether a 60-year-old can hack the modern-day Corps.He’s not some cockeyed cub, innocent of war save through the movies. He was that kid, once, growing up in the wake of World War II, playing in foxholes, thrilling to “The Sands of Iwo Jima” and “Guadalcanal Diaries.”Naturally, he grew curious why every other kid’s dad but his seemed to have war medals. In their big extended family, no one said a word about what Big Al did during the war.Moreno was in junior high when he finally thought to ask his mom. She cried and said, “He left.” It felt like a sledgehammer between the eyes.Soon after, his father approached him in the backyard. It was a beautiful day, and their peach tree was full of blossoms. The effort it took his father to speak looked excruciating. He did not volunteer details or explanations.It should have brought them closer, that meeting, but it did something else. His secret exposed, his oldest son’s admiration for him capsized in an instant, Big Al retreated further into booze and work and silence.Things were different for Moreno too. He was not like his brothers, who joined the Army for the usual reasons poor boys sign up. Artie was drinking too much and going nowhere. Tony didn’t want to go to college and figured he would be drafted anyway. They both came home with Purple Hearts.When Al Moreno Jr. joined the Marines in 1968, he had his own reasons. Now and then, huddled with his buddies in a jungle tent, he would speak of the secret his family never breathed. Explain why he strapped on two 200-round bandoleers instead of one, six grenades instead of two. Explain why despite a congenital hip condition that supplied a ready-made excuse to stay home, he had fought to get here, exactly where no one else wanted to be.In early 1969, Moreno shot and killed three Vietnamese soldiers in the Son Ga mountains. Soon after, when he complained of hip pain, X-rays revealed a bone deformity, and the Marines sent him home. His failure to finish his tour haunted him, but he could never speak of it to his father. Nor could he tell him what he saw in Vietnam, about “screaming, yelling, pain, blood like you didn’t know a person had that much blood.”Back home, after repeated medical rejections, the LAPD gave him a uniform. In March 1977, he was on patrol in Hollywood when he was ordered to head to Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital. His 58-year-old father had arrived there a few hours earlier, suffering a heart attack, and was dead by the time Moreno arrived. There had been no final words, no deathbed reconciliation.As a policeman, for a time, Moreno thrived. He led the gang unit in recovering guns. But in 1982, the LAPD stripped him of his badge for an off-duty fight and for roughing up a murder suspect.He came to understand his father’s sense of shame and failure in a new way. More than once, he put his gun in his mouth. He saw his own face in “The Last Judgment” – in the demon-clawed figure whose eyes glimpse no reprieve from despair.At this particular moment he’s pulling into a mall parking lot, scanning for the recruiting station. As he walks up, he’s wearing creased khakis and a tight-fitting short-sleeve shirt emblazoned with a Marines emblem. Fighting his nerves, he opens the door.For years, Moreno has tried to put himself inside his dad’s head during those years underground, as war filled every inch of the nation’s air. “Your dad is not a coward,” an aunt told him once. “He was just afraid his mom was gonna die of a heart attack from the stress of going to war.”That was the best explanation the family could give him – that Big Al’s mom had him in some kind of sick guilt vise. That was the only story, however incomplete and unsatisfactory, that made sense.One recent day, a reporter to whom he told his story decided to hunt down the one public record Al Moreno had never thought to look for: his dad’s court-martial transcript.The court-martial convened at 11:18 a.m. Wednesday, April 23, 1947, at the Naval base in San Diego.”Not guilty, sir,” Al Moreno Sr. pleaded to the desertion charge.When his lawyer asked him about his physical condition during his recruit training, he replied: “Well, I got a bad back and I kept going over to the sick bay every day, but the doctors wouldn’t listen to me.” He continued: “Any kind of work I do, or exercise, I just can’t stand it, and I can’t sleep at night. My legs hurt me.”His back pain resulted from a car crash, he said, and while he was on leave in February 1944 he decided he couldn’t take any more.”And what did you do?””Well, I just didn’t come back.”Moreno had no valid reason for leaving the Navy, the prosecutor concluded, arguing that he had “fooled around a year and a half” before deciding to flee to Tijuana. He only turned himself in, the lawyer said, “to get it over with.” Reading the transcript nearly 60 years later, Moreno felt physically sick, then apoplectic with fury. He had never heard his father say anything about back problems – nor, he learned when he called her, had his sister Irene. Back problems? From a man who hauled heavy furniture uncomplainingly for decades?Moreno didn’t know what to do with the knowledge. As he saw it, instead of owning up, instead of asking the court to throw the book at him, his father had tried to duck responsibility with his “not guilty” plea.He began to reconsider the wisdom of his decades-long campaign. It suddenly seemed so pointless. Did his dad even deserve a pardon? “I’ve learned that anger can chew you up,” Moreno says. “It just takes too much juice out of you. Probably I do put too much energy into this whole thing. It has affected my life.”He concluded that his father had lied about having a bad back – not because he was afraid of war but because of that demented maternal spell. It was still the only explanation that made sense.When his fury abated, he decided he should persevere in trying to win a pardon for his father. Because even if the old man didn’t deserve it, the family did.Staff Sergeant Matthew Klepsa, the youngish recruiter who greets Moreno with a firm handshake at the Armed Forces Career Center, hasn’t had a walk-in all day. Moreno gives Klepsa his military records and tells him he has an unusual request.”I want to get back in the Corps,” he says. “I work out 7 days a week.””I can see that, sir.””I just turned 60 in November.””You don’t look 60, sir.””I am willing to sign any kind of waiver. I am willing to take any kind of physical agility test. My blood pressure is 119 over 78.”He adds, “It would be a very positive thing for the corps.”Moreno’s voice goes quieter, and he says, “There’s one last very personal part of this.” He explains that he’s here because his dad ran away from World War II.”He shamed the blood of our family,” Moreno says. “Dad had a year and nine months to go. And I want to make up the year and nine months for my pop.”The recruiter nods somberly.”It’s a very profound emotional disgrace to my family,” Moreno says.The recruiter nods again. He explains that the matter is above his head.Moreno begs him to kick it up a pay grade, to give him a chance.”I can pass it up,” the recruiter says. “It’s definitely not something we see every day.””It’s just a win-win situation,” Moreno says. “Go the extra yard for me, man.”A few days later, Moreno gets a call from a gunnery sergeant. It’s not that they don’t believe he can pull his weight, the sergeant says. The trouble is the precedent they would set by allowing a 60-year-old to join.Moreno hangs up the phone. He doesn’t know how to argue with that logic.”I’m just gonna live with it,” he says finally. “You’ve got to live with the pain. It’s not gonna go away. That’s just the way it is.”A few months pass. Sitting at his desk one afternoon, he finds himself opening a folder. Fishing out the recruiter’s business card. Grabbing the phone. “This is Al Moreno,” he says to the voice on the other end, asking if they might reconsider.