Survivor reflects, memorializes life of friend lost in Vietnam War
One phone call led to a memorial honoring the story of two soldiers connected by a tragic incident while serving in the U.S. Army in Vietnam more than 50 years ago.
On Feb. 28, Army veteran Louis A. Demers of Manchester, New Hampshire, called Cemetery Superintendent Ruben Esquivel of the local South Park Cemetery to inquire about the family and grave of Cpl. Arturo Sylvester Sisneros, a fellow gunner, friend and fallen soldier from Midway.
Cannoneers Demers and Sisneros were stationed in Vietnam together in “The Brave Cannons” B/1-92 Field Artillery Regiment, and on May 10, 1969, Sisneros died instantly from an explosion of the gun he was manning during a fire mission, as witnessed by Demers who was about 20 feet away.
“I’ve been thinking of Arturo probably anywhere from five, to 10, to 12 times a day — every day for 50 years,” Demers said in a phone interview. “And the reason for that is because when we came off the helicopter, they didn’t even request our names or anything. It was very rough conditions up there and they just pointed at Arturo and sent him to point A and they pointed at me and sent me to point B. So it was literally a wave of a finger that determined our fate.
“And I have been dealing with the issue of guilt because this could have been me. This could have been me — just a wave of the finger — it would be me today who would have died 50 years ago today.”
May 10 also marks Demers’ birthday.
After the incident, Demers recalled waiting for three days to be transferred as he served as Sisneros’ honor guard. Demers remained at Sisneros’ side, around the clock, for days. Demers wanted to travel with Sisneros’ body to New Mexico, but had to remain at the base due to excessive casualties. This was the last time Demers saw Sisneros.
Before seeking help, Demers suffered from “survivor’s guilt” for 27 years and kept his story private. Days before and after that anniversary of Sisneros’ passing, Demers would lock himself in a room. To this day, Demers is still in counseling, dealing with the after-effects of war.
With the intention of honoring his friend, Demers recently found Sisneros’ burial site through findagrave.com, as well as his family in Roswell. At a mere 19 years old, Sisneros left behind a wife, parents and his five siblings, a sister and four brothers. Through Esquivel and his father, Demers was able to contact Sisneros’ siblings, and there has been an ongoing dialog since March.
Demers said he and his family looked into traveling to Roswell for the memorial, but decided it would be “too much” physically, mentally and emotionally.
“People say, ‘Well, now you’ve got closure,’” Demers said. “No, that word does not exist. No closure. There is no closure. There never will be. The only time there will be closure is on my last day here, when I take my final breath, then I’ll have closure. But until that day, I will not have closure and making that trip would not have given me closure. It probably would have created even more pain and probably set me back …
“But the incident with Arturo for me is one of many — many, many, many incidences that occurred in my time because I spent my entire 12 months in the jungle when I was there …”
Demers has tattoos of his “entire life history” on his arms, shoulders and back. For each of his “brothers” lost in war, Demers has blood drops symbolizing them — and these tattoos cover nearly the full length of his spine. Demers said his feelings on loss, as a veteran, are not unique to him. He said more than 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam, as inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington D.C., and their families experienced situations similar to the Sisneros family.
Memorial Day honors U.S. military men and women who died in service, and is observed on the last Monday of May.
Arturo Sisneros was born Nov. 26, 1949 to Teofilo and Jesucita “Jessie” Sisneros, who lived in Midway and had six children, Patsy (Silva), Joe, Tony, Arturo, Ruben and Leonard.
In describing Arturo, Silva said her brother was “a special one,” as well as a beloved brother and son who will forever be remembered and loved.
She described him as “a beautiful person” and said he would get traffic tickets for driving slow. Leonard Sisneros, the youngest Sisneros sibling, reminisced that his brother enjoyed driving his mid-’60s light blue Chevy, and was valiant and protective of the women in his life.
Silva recalled that Arturo did irrigation work and worked at Walker Air Force Base prior to serving in Vietnam. When he was tested in El Paso, Silva remembered that Arturo did not pass originally, and enlisted in the army anyway shortly after. She estimates that her brother left only 10 days after his wedding in 1968 and was only in Vietnam for about seven months. Sisneros received a Purple Heart and was awarded other military decorations.
Since the news of his death was delivered, the day after Mother’s Day in 1969, Silva said she always wondered about the circumstances of her brother’s death and if anyone was with him. Silva acknowledged that learning about her brother’s death and his friendship with Demers presented an opportunity of healing and resolution for her and the family.
Leonard Sisneros explained that despite the “short-lived” but “forever” friendship between Demers and his brother, he views Demers as a brother and part of the family now. Demers said it is an “honor and a privilege to have the Sisneros family” in his life.
Silva said the family could never “repay” or thank Demers enough for the time spent with Arturo Sisneros, and Leonard Sisneros stated the family would not have wanted the situation to go any other way.
On May 10, around 40 people gathered around Sisneros’ grave at South Park Cemetery to remember the 50th anniversary of his death. It was a drizzly, overcast morning. Demers arranged with Esquivel to host a memorial for Sisneros because he didn’t want Sisneros “to be alone” on this day.
During the memorial, family members, friends and even cemetery staff expressed a variety of emotions — from grief to sadness to gratitude, with tear-filled eyes — and embraced each other. The echo of two buglers could be heard playing at the beginning, while the colors were displayed by the Roswell Veterans Honor Guard. The veterans folded a flag and it was presented to Silva.
After this, Esquivel explained how the conversation with Demers evolved into this memorial, and read a handwritten note from Demers as follows:
“Arturo, it has been 50 years since we were together and I’ve thought of you every day for 50 years. You are so deeply embedded in my heart and I know that someday, we will be together once again. You became my brother the day we met and will be forever. I love you, my brother. Sleep well. Louis Demers, First 92 Artillery Regiment Vietnam ‘68-’69, U.S. Army.”
Esquivel placed Demers’ note near Sisneros’ headstone that was decorated with a candle, miniature American flags and a red, white and blue floral arrangement. Asking the attendees to join in, Esquivel and those present sang “Happy Birthday” to Demers, which was videoed by a family member.
“I believe we live in the greatest nation on earth, on this planet, and this part of it,” Leonard Sisneros said following the service. “This is what makes us all Americans. It bonds us together — life and death — and brings us together. To have people that we know, and people that we don’t know, get together and honor my brother, our brother — it’s fantastic. It’s awesome.”
Silva thanked everyone who attended the memorial, saying it exceeded her expectations. Silva belongs to the American Legion Post 28 and VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) and said she wants “to be there for all the soldiers.”
“My mission is we’ve got to remember and never forget,” Demers said. “And I will always remember Arturo and I will never forget him — and that goes for Arturo and the rest of my brothers that I lost over there — and that’s my life.”
City/RISD reporter Alison Penn can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.