Echoes of the Vietnam War

EP31: Growing Up Gold Star

Release Date: June 21, 2022

Tony Cordero talks about growing up without his father, realizing in early adulthood that there must be many thousands of other kids who lost their fathers in Vietnam, and creating an all-volunteer non-profit organization, Sons and Daughters in Touch, to connect them with each other.

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Echoes of the Vietnam War


HOST: [00:00:00] So how was your Father’s Day weekend? We had a busy one here at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. You’ve heard me talk about our In Memory program, which honors servicemen and women who survived the Vietnam War but have since passed away. Well, on Friday we did a roll call of each In Memory Honoree to date, that’s more than 5,100 in total. That’s roughly 15 names per minute for five and a half hours. On Saturday, we held the 2022 In Memory Induction Ceremony, adding another 513 names to the Honor Roll. By the way, if you’re interested in learning more about our In Memory program, go to and click on In Memory or check out Episode 16 of this podcast. On Sunday, Father’s Day, we held the annual Father’s Day Rose Remembrance at The Wall. Friends, family and visitors laid more than 3,000 roses: Red for those killed in action; Yellow for those still missing in action; and red roses with white tips for those who died after the war ended. The Annual Rose Remembrance got its start on Father’s Day of 1989, when a loosely organized group of sons and daughters whose fathers are listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial got together and laid roses at The Wall. It was the beginning of a tradition, and it was the beginning of an organization. Sons and Daughters in Touch is an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization committed to locating, uniting and supporting the now-grown children of American servicemen and women who perished during the Vietnam War. For nearly 30 years, SDIT has worked to elevate the visibility of Vietnam veterans and their Gold Star children and of Gold Star families in general. One of the founders of SDIT and its chairman is Tony Cordero. He joined me via Zoom from Los Angeles to talk about growing up without his father, realizing in early adulthood that there must be many thousands of other kids who lost their fathers in Vietnam and creating an organization to connect them with each other.

TONY: [00:02:04] Everybody wants to focus on the picture of the eight year old in his Cub Scout uniform at his dad’s funeral or something like that…. but, we are what happens when those Gold Star children grow up?

HOST: [00:02:17] Stick around. From the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, founders of The Wall, This is Echoes of the Vietnam War. I’m your host, Michael Croan, bringing you stories of service, sacrifice and healing from people who still feel the impact of that conflict… Nearly 50 years later. This is Episode 31, “Sons and Daughters in Touch.” Tony, why don’t we start at the beginning? Tell us about your father.

TONY: [00:03:06] My Dad was William E. Cordero and he is remembered on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Panel 2 East, Line 15. He was an Air Force navigator. And in the late 1950s, it wasn’t common for Hispanic men to go to college, much less become officers in the military, and my Dad did both. And while he was at college, he met a nursing student in Los Angeles, a young Irish girl named Kathleen Carroll. And so the two of them were married, my Dad was commissioned, and they began their life together.

HOST: [00:03:44] Like most practicing Catholic newlyweds in the 1950s, the young officer and his wife started building a family. By the spring of 1963, they had four children. Tony was the third.

TONY: [00:03:56] And then in November of ’63, Dad was deployed to Vietnam and he landed at Bien Hoa Air Base just outside of Saigon. On the day President Kennedy was killed… So, that… That didn’t get things off to a good start for him for the first year that he was there, from November of ’63 to the summer of ’64. He was with the Air Force Air Commandos, and they were “training,” quote/unquote, the South Vietnamese Air Force. And then in the summer of ’64, we got orders that we were going to go join Dad, and he was being transferred to a new unit. But we were moving from California to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. So the B-26’s, which had been a holdover from World War II, were being decommissioned and Dad was now going to be flying B-57’s. Low-range, long-distance, reconnaissance jet bomber. We land at Clark and, you know, by today’s standards, just this crazy thing where Dad was home for a couple of weeks with us at Clark, and then he would fly to Vietnam and for a couple of weeks… Would go on missions and drop bombs and blow things up and then come back home and we’d start the whole cycle all over again. We did that. Until June of ’65. And at that point, we were about six weeks away from being sent back to the States to Mather Air Force base in Sacramento, and, you know, Dad went on what turned out to be the final mission. It was Father’s Day weekend in 1965. He was the navigator, he and the pilot took off from Clark. They flew to Saigon and then from there to Da Nang, in the central part of the country, they got orders and instructions and they were part of a bombing mission. There were two B-57’s and a C-130 flying in between the two and somewhere along the Vietnam/Laos border. There was a part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail they were supposed to hit and something happened. And we don’t know what it was.

HOST: [00:06:18] And we still don’t know.

TONY: [00:06:19] We still don’t know, the other B-57 and the C-130 lost contact with them. They don’t know whether they were hit by enemy fire or if there was some mechanical malfunction. We just don’t know. And for the longest time, we were led to believe that the plane went down in Vietnam and, in 1994 we found out that indeed the plane is actually in Laos. So there are still major sections of the plane that rest in the jungles of Laos in a pretty remote area, which begs a whole bunch of other questions: Why were they there? Did they get lost? Did they know what they were doing? Were they on a mission that nobody else knew about? We don’t know.

HOST: [00:07:05] Well, you were just a little guy at the time, right?

TONY: [00:07:07] I was four when the plane was lost. Yeah.

HOST: [00:07:09] So what memories do you have of your father?

TONY: [00:07:13] Specifically of him. They’re kind of ghost figures. I don’t remember ever looking him in the eye and saying, That’s my Dad. But, I remember him smoking cigarettes. I remember him coming home from work at the Air Force base. And when he would do that, we would ride on his motorcycle. I don’t know what kind of motorcycle it was a little scooter kind of thing, but we would ride with him on that through the sugar cane fields, and that was some of our afternoon fun when he got off work. We vacationed a couple of times there in the Philippines, went to the officer’s club, went swimming there, had dinner near the officer’s club and things like that. And I kind of vaguely remember a conversation that I had with him the day that he left that Father’s Day weekend in ’65… But, you know, I don’t know if it’s a figment of my imagination or if it’s something that actually occurred, but what a four year olds remember, I just don’t know.

HOST: [00:08:08] So what happened to the family? I’m assuming that your father was listed as Missing in Action.

TONY: [00:08:13] That’s exactly what happened. And so the squadron commander and his wife, a few other wives and the Catholic chaplain from Clark Air Base came to our house, off base, and we got the proverbial knock on the door and… Some kind family took the four of us kids and scuttled us away. And Mom spoke with the adults and…. Was told by the squadron commander that it probably would be a very long time before there was ever any answer. And I don’t know the exact words he used or if he was hinting at something, but she does recall that. And then we were given the logistical challenge that we had to leave pretty quick. So I think within a week we were on our way back to California. So, you know, here’s this woman, my Mom, she’s not 30 years old. She’s got four kids. She’s 7,500 miles from home. Her husband’s missing in the jungles of a war zone. And, oh, by the way, she’s expecting child number five. Dad was ultimately missing from June of ’65 until the spring of ’69. We were… In kind of a limbo, is probably the most polite way to put it, where you get an occasional update from the Air Force on something, but for the most part, we were back to civilian life. You didn’t have the community of support that you had when you were active duty military. Nobody really wanted you around because you were the sight of the worst possible scenario. It wasn’t something that was talked about a whole bunch just because nobody really wanted to hear about it. And that gets into the whole Vietnam issue… But, you know, the number of kids in my grade school class who knew about my Dad’s situation, you could probably count on one hand.

HOST: [00:10:16] And what kind of support did your Mother have during that period? Did she have family nearby?

TONY: [00:10:21] Yeah. We came back to this town in the LA area called San Pedro. It’s the Port of Los Angeles. And we did that because that’s where Mom grew up and that’s where her parents were. And so they were an incredible rock of support there. And then my dad’s parents were up in Santa Barbara 100 miles away. And if they weren’t providing interpersonal care and support, they were providing some financial support. So when we started school, my grandfather paid for us to go to the local Catholic school because tuition was fairly inexpensive and it might have been $20 a month per kid or something like that, so he was paying for that and. So we had great support from all of them. It was… What was necessary. And that’s what they did to to help ease some of that concern during the MIA years.

HOST: [00:11:20] Yeah. You mentioned that you kids didn’t really talk to other people about your father or about your situation. Did you talk to each other at all about it?

TONY: [00:11:31] You know, if we sat around the sandbox and looked at each other and asked, what do you think happened to Dad or what do you think happened to Dad? I don’t recall that. I think the most clear memory I have is of the five of us kids saying our our prayers at night, our good night prayers… And we would always finish the prayers with the line “God bless, Daddy, wherever you are.”

HOST: [00:12:04] So what happened in 1969?

TONY: [00:12:08] Another knock on the door. The Air Force came to our home and Mom already knew this was coming… She just didn’t know when. And they said, number one, we’re here to confirm that he is not coming home. We have some remains and we’ve decided that we’re going to bury the two of them, the pilot and the navigator in the same grave. And we’re going to bury them in Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. And fortunately, my mom and the wife of the pilot, they were in North Carolina, were in California. The two ladies got together and said, no, that ain’t happening. And so they said, bury them in Arlington. And they did. And so there was May 1st of 1969, there was a… A Funeral at Fort Myer Chapel and then the burial in Section 46 of Arlington.

HOST: [00:13:13] And you were old enough then. You probably have memories of the funeral.

TONY: [00:13:17] Yeah, I remember the funeral. I wore my Cub Scout uniform. Something in my mind said, I want to be in uniform.

HOST: [00:13:28] Unfortunately, not everyone in the family could attend the funeral in Arlington. So the family held a second ceremony at their local Catholic parish in San Pedro with a flag draped over an empty casket and an honor guard. As it happened, Tony was due for his first communion, and he actually received that Holy Sacrament at that ceremony. As the Cordero kids grew up, Tony says he wasn’t a terrific student, but he was great at sports and he loved them, especially football. Still, he never talked to anybody about his father and nobody ever asked.

TONY: [00:14:04] Most of my teachers didn’t know that my high school football coach was a Vietnam veteran… He didn’t know until I told him going into my senior year of high school what was going on in my life. And so. It was a function of the environment that we grew up in in the ’60s and ’70s where the unpopular nature of the war and all of that that went along with it, told us, just don’t talk about it. Don’t share it with anybody. In fact, I spoke to a guy this morning on the phone, I’ve known him for 40 years and I mentioned something in passing about it and said I never knew that about you. He was the kicker on our football team. He was a pretty good kicker, and he and his brother were both on the team and and his dad was a World War II veteran. And there were always a bunch of dads there at the end of practice. And fathers and sons were walking off the field. And I know and I can remember vividly to this day, there were times when I just kind of glanced over there and wondered… Is there a chance he’ll show up? Is there a chance that this whole thing has been a mistake and my Dad’s going to show up and say, “Hey, sorry I didn’t get here any sooner.” I went to a movie one time, I think when I was a senior in high school, I went to see Apocalypse Now and there’s a scene where the riverboats going along the river and on the side of the bank is the river is a tree. And the remnants of a helicopter that had crashed.. huey went down and there were a couple of presumably American service members in the tree and they had been killed there. And it just it was kind of gruesome and it stuck with me because I thought, wow. Is that the kind of fate that my Dad met?

HOST: [00:16:01] Tony finished high school and then played football at a local community college, but a knee injury ended that pursuit. He had always wanted to attend the University of Southern California, so he buckled down at community college and got the grades he needed to get into USC… Paying for it, that was another matter. But Tony was resourceful, and one of the many ways he scraped by was by working as a student manager for the Trojans football team. He also worked as an usher at the forum, then the home of the Los Angeles Lakers, as well as the LA Kings hockey team. And it was there, during a Kings game, that Tony noticed another usher, a very attractive one, and he gave her a wink. Tony would eventually graduate with a degree in public relations from USC’s renowned School of Journalism. He and Diana, that very attractive usher, have been married for 38 years. So at what point did you start to get curious about other Gold Star sons and daughters and, just your place in that community?

TONY: [00:17:05] It was in the late ’80s when I was about to outlive my Dad. And I started thinking, gosh, I’m going to be 30 in a couple of years. And my Dad was killed a month before his 30th birthday. What will it be like to outlive your Dad? I didn’t know. So I started asking questions. And a Vietnam veteran in Sacramento, California, said to me, if there was an organization for you, I would know about it and I don’t know about it. So call this woman at the Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. She lost her husband in the war. And you should talk to her and see what comes of it. And I did.

HOST: [00:17:47] You said this was the late ’80s, right?

TONY: [00:17:49] Yeah. 1989.

HOST: [00:17:50] And The Wall was dedicated in ’82. Correct. So was that an event for you at all?

TONY: [00:17:55] Not really. I mean, I was in college at the time, it was Veteran’s Day 1982… And I was managing the football team. So, you know, I think at that time I don’t know which game that would have coincided with and the USC football schedule, but school and football were the most important things. I knew The Wall was being dedicated, I knew of it, but it wasn’t a big focus. And I think that sentiment holds true for my Mom and for my siblings as well. None of us were really drawn to The Wall and thought much about it. But then I get a hold of this woman at the Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Her name was Wanda Ruffin. We start talking. She tells me that she has a daughter who was born after her husband was lost. He was a naval aviator, James T. Ruffin. And so we start talking and one thing leads to another. And next thing you know, we get a couple of media outlets interested in telling this story. And on Father’s Day of 1989, Maria Shriver. Was a reporter for NBC Sunday Today, and she did a story that aired on Father’s Day in 1989 talking about three kids who lost their dads in the Vietnam War and they are now coming of age, because here they are in their 20’s and these kids are growing up. And that led to Parade magazine, which in the 1980s was an insert in the Sunday newspapers. Parade magazine did a story that ran Memorial Day weekend, 1990. And that was huge because what it did was it hit so many people across the country and the article got shared all over the country. And remember, in 1990, ’89-90, you didn’t have cell phones, you didn’t have the Internet, you didn’t have email. So all this stuff took place via the US Postal Service and 1,500 people said someone is finally telling the story of my life. 1,500 people said, You’re telling the story of my life and in the article, they featured three or four of us. And one of the comments that I made was, I’d love to have an event at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial where everybody could get together and just be together there for the first time.

HOST: [00:20:38] When we come back, a bunch of Gold Star children of the Vietnam War gather at The Wall for the first time and that starts an avalanche that is still growing.

TONY: [00:20:47] It was the first time for most of us that we had met others who lost their dads in the war. And the first time that we’d seen our dads names on a Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

HOST: [00:20:59] Stick around. I need to let you all know that we’re going to take a very short summer break. This will be our last episode until July 18th, so about four weeks. If you’re really jonesing for an episode, in the meantime, consider checking out one from our archive. Some of my favorites that really haven’t seen much traffic include episodes 6, 12 and 15. The Wall That Heals is an exact replica of The Wall at three-quarter scale that travels to communities all across America. The Wall That Heals and the Mobile Education Center that travels with it will be in Chisholm, Minnesota, June 23 thru 26 Franklin, Wisconsin June 30 through July 3 Chicago Heights, Illinois, July 7 through 10 and Battle Creek, Michigan, July 14 through 17. To see the rest of this year’s tour schedule and to learn how you can bring The Wall That Heals to your town, visit This year, we’re celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and to commemorate this milestone every day at 3 p.m. eastern we read the name of every Wall honoree who died on that date. This is in addition to the live, in-person Reading of the Names that will be held in Washington, D.C., beginning on November 7th. You can visit for more information about the daily virtual reading of the names and about the in-person event.

HOST: [00:23:03] And finally, for 40 years, VVMF has led the way to help heal our nation. Remember those who gave all and honor all who served? Our new Legacy Endowment will ensure that we can continue honoring Vietnam veterans for the next 40 years and beyond. We launched the Legacy Endowment with a $500,000 matching gift campaign. The Legacy Challenge. Each new outright gift or gift established through a will, will be matched up to 50%, with a maximum of $50,000 matched per gift. All qualifying gifts established or newly identified before November 12th of this year are eligible for the match. Learn more at Tony Cordero was only four years old when he lost his father. For most of his youth. He didn’t talk about his dad, and he never met anyone else that he knew of who had lost a father in Vietnam. Major William E Cordero, an Air Force navigator, was killed in action just a month shy of his 30th birthday. And as Tony neared that milestone himself, he grew curious and started looking for other people like him. He found a few, and when their story appeared in national news media, 1,500 others quickly came into the light.

TONY: [00:24:32] With the help of the Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the support of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, we were able to put together an event in June of 1992 that brought all of those sons and daughters together. And it was powerful. It was really, really powerful.

HOST: [00:24:53] Yeah, I would imagine that for many of them, this was the first time they’d ever met another person who had grown up the same way they did, and for the same reason.

TONY: [00:25:02] Absolutely correct. I couldn’t set it any better when Father’s Day 1992 happened. It was the first time for most of us that we had met others who lost their dads in the war. And the first time that we’d seen our Dads’ names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

HOST: [00:25:18] And that was the beginning of something.

TONY: [00:25:19] It was the ball was rolling… And again, there wasn’t a template for what we were doing. We made this up as we went along and, much like the Vietnam veterans themselves, when they needed an organization for themselves, they built it themselves. We did the same thing. We took the cue from them and we built this ourselves.

HOST: [00:25:43] So at what point does this network of Vietnam Gold Star Kids become an official organization?

TONY: [00:25:51] So that was probably ’91-’92, somewhere in there. We were recognized as a 501C3. We still obviously have that designation… Articles, bylaws, all the other legal things that go along with being a nonprofit… And, so that gave us the framework for what we are. And so our board of directors for all of this time has consisted of us. The Gold Star Sons and Daughters from the Vietnam War. And when I think of the many people who have served on the board and the people who are currently on the board, I know their stories, I know when their fathers were lost, what branch of service they were in, all these unique stories. And each one of them felt the need to give something to this organization so they could be not only the experiencer, but also the worker bee making it happen.

HOST: [00:26:49] The group held another Father’s Day event at the Wall in 1993. Emotions ran high, of course, and someone suggested that they should do it every year, and everyone tearfully agreed. But these sons and daughters were all grown up now with responsibilities and schedules, and they soon figured out that an annual gathering probably wasn’t practical. They reconvened, erratically for a while, and eventually settled on a rhythm of every five years. Their 2020 event was held virtually because of the global pandemic.

TONY: [00:27:20] One of the things that I think makes this such an incredible story is the support of the Vietnam veterans themselves. And I’m saying that uppercase and lowercase, uppercase Vietnam Veterans of America have been the incredible uncles and father figures to us that we didn’t have, and Vietnam veterans, lowercase, every one of those, whether they were combat veterans or Vietnam-era veterans or nurses who served… They have all rallied around us for the last 33 years to make this happen. And when I think about the people who were there in the beginning that made this, they were guys like the president of of Vietnam Veterans of America, George Duggins. And…. I can say this because I know it’s now public information, but when we got news this morning that Tom Corey, another one of the presidents of Vietnam Veterans of America, died last night, Tom Corey is the world… America needs 330 million. Tom Coreys. George Duggins, Tom Corey, Bill Chester, Jan Scruggs, Rich Sanders… So many other people… Janice Nark, Marsha Four… I just, the names go on and on and on and on. All these people whose young lives were changed and influenced by their time and service in Vietnam.

TONY: [00:28:51] They came home. They befriended the people you see behind me. And that had never been done before. The veterans who served in the Global War On Terror, befriending the families of the fallen… That’s a given. That’s something that just kind of goes with the weather. It’s like, okay, this is easy. But in 1989, that wasn’t the case, and it was the Vietnam veterans who said, we want you to do this and we will be there with you and support you all along the way. So, Father’s Day, 2000, I thought, okay, we need to do something crazy. The world was at relative peace at that time. So these words start spewing out of my mouth as we conclude the ceremony at The Wall, I said, “The time has come. It’s time for us to go to Vietnam and see the places where our dads fought and died.” And before the sun went down that day, there were so many Vietnam veterans and organizations saying, we will support you, make it happen, and we will be there with you all along the way. And they did.

HOST: [00:30:04] In March of 2003, 50 sons and daughters representing every branch of the armed services spent two and a half weeks together in Vietnam. They were joined by 20 veterans, some combat veterans, some Vietnam-era veterans, some nurses. Together, they toured all over the country from rice paddies to the Mekong Delta, from tiny villages to all of the major cities… Everywhere their fathers had fallen. The group was even received at the American Ambassador’s residence in Hanoi.

TONY: [00:30:35] And rest his soul, Tom Corey – For the people who don’t know who he is or the life that he led – Tom Corey was shot in the neck by a sniper’s bullet, and he came home a quadriplegic. And if that happened when Tom was 22 years of age, Tom died at 74, so he lived 50 years in a wheelchair and he couldn’t stand and he couldn’t point. But people followed him. People took direction from him. He went with us to Vietnam. And when you saw… The other Vietnam veterans on that trip with us – we had 50 Gold Star sons and daughters, and we had 20 Vietnam veterans, combat veterans and nurses there – And when you saw those people carrying Tom and his chair across a rice paddy…

HOST: [00:31:27] That image stays with you…

TONY: [00:31:28] Yeah. Telling that story is always emotional. But telling it hours after Tom passed away is even more. But that man… touched so many lives and influenced and motivated so many people. He was such an incredible inspiration.

HOST: [00:31:56] Talk a little bit about where the organization is today, 30 years in.

TONY: [00:32:00] Today when you see what we’re doing. In this year where, not only are we in the throes of the Vietnam War commemoration and the 50th Anniversary of the Commemoration of the [Vietnam] War, but honoring Vietnam veterans and their families for what will soon be that 50th anniversary of the end of the war. We support the Commemoration, we’re partners with them, we’re making sure that as many people as we can, are recognized by the Commemoration. This is also the 40th anniversary of the dedication of The Wall. That’s important to us. We will have a large crowd of sons and daughters in Washington for Veterans Day in November. And… Amidst all of that, we look at it and say simply, we are the example of what happens when a Gold Star child grows up. Everybody wants to focus on the picture of the eight year old in his Cub Scout uniform at his dad’s funeral or the little three-year-old girl or something like that… But, we are what happens when those Gold Star children grow up, and so we have taken the lead from Vietnam veterans and reached out to older and younger Gold Star families and been bridge builders. We have great relationships with the Gold Star children from World War II and their organization, the World War II Orphans Network, great relationships with the families from the Korean War, and also incredible relationships and contacts within the Gold Star families from the Global War on Terror. And and the most important thing that we can do is give a voice, especially to the older Gold Star families… Folks may not know it, but 92% of all of America’s Gold Star families are from wars and conflicts prior to 9/11.

HOST: [00:34:03] Giving a voice to those families has recently evolved into advocacy. SDIT is increasingly present in the halls of power anywhere that issues affecting Gold Star families and particularly those from the Vietnam War are debated and decided.

TONY: [00:34:19] We hadn’t been advocates. We hadn’t been advocates within the Pentagon or on Capitol Hill… And so we have to tell the story. So we are right where we’re supposed to be.

HOST: [00:34:40] If you or someone you know might benefit from connecting with Sons and Daughters in Touch, visit and also check out their YouTube channel. Our thanks to Tony Cordero for sharing his story and to you for supporting the official podcast from the founders of The Wall in Washington, DC. If you want to give us a little extra boost, tell a friend or two to check us out, or better yet, leave us a rating or a review wherever you get your podcasts. That’s the most powerful way to help new listeners find us. We’ll be back in four weeks with more stories of service, sacrifice and healing.

HOST: [00:35:28] See you then.

Echoes of the Vietnam War

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Echoes of The Vietnam War

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