Rufino “Joe” Centeno physically left the jungles of Vietnam 45 years ago, but the sights and sounds and the losses experienced on the front lines have remained tangled in his mind for long after.
The 65-year-old Turlock resident kept his inner turmoil well-hidden from family and friends and tried to find solace in a bottle. But the nightmares were always lurking.
“I was very introverted,” Centeno recalls. “I was afraid of the world.”
Centeno was just 18 years old when he first landed in Vietnam. Soon the Del Rio, Texas native found himself in the middle of some of the heaviest fighting of the war, including the Tet Offensive of 1968.
“I didn’t think I would ever come home again,” Centeno said. “It’s a young man’s dream to make a career of the army, but when a captain offered to send me to school for officer training I said no because I didn’t want to go back there again.”
Watching Centeno withdraw more and more from the people around him was an anguishing experience for his wife of 22 years, Louise Centeno, and she spurred him to seek help at the Modesto Vet Center.
Within those walls Centeno found a safe haven and a family of veterans that could relate to the experiences and memories that have haunted him all these decades.
“There’s a lot of help here,” Centeno said. “It’s a family of fellow soldiers who have been through the same things. I feel myself opening up and changing.”
An unassuming and humble man by nature, Centeno is learning to see his service in Vietnam in a new light and as such decided to pursue some of the accolades he had shunned in the past.
Four months ago Centeno contacted the office of Rep. Jeff Denham to see about getting his Combat Infantryman Badge. That request turned into a review of his records that led to the discovery that Centeno was entitled to other awards and decorations.
“As a veteran myself, one of my greatest honors is my ability to help those who served our nation receive the recognition they are owed for their distinguished service,” Denham said. “Mr. Centeno is a distinguished American who waited far too long to receive his Combat Infantry Badge, and I’m pleased our office could help secure due acknowledgment for his heroism during combat in Vietnam.”
On Wednesday, Centeno was awarded: The Combat Infantryman Badge; the Army Commendation Medal with “V” Device; the Army Good Conduct Medal; the Vietnam Service Medal and Silver Service Star; the Valorous Unit Award; the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation; and the Republic of Vietnam Civil Actions Honor Medal Unit Citation, First Class.
For Centeno the recognition is another step toward his own acceptance of his past.
“When these came in,” Centeno said looking at his medals, “it was like, ‘wow.’ It really hit me. It made me feel like it was worth it.”