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  • Renée C. Byer /

    Sabrina Tavares, 18, and her mother, Shirley Tavares, recall Eliseo Garcia, their grandfather and father, respectively, on Wednesday in the Amador County town of Volcano. Garcia, 79, had promised to attend Sabrina's graduation from Amador High in Sutter Creek. Despite ill health, he drove from Dayton, Nev., for the June 7 commencement. "He made a promise, and keeps his promises," Shirley Tavares said. "He was the most loving man you will ever meet." Garcia died June 10.

  • Eliseo Garcia is pictured as a teenage war hero in a book he published in 2006. Garcia, 17,was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for knocking out two enemy machine gun crews in 1950.

Funeral services set for highly decorated Korea, Vietnam veteran

Published: Thursday, Jun. 20, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Friday, Jun. 21, 2013 - 8:36 am

You don't find many 17-year-olds marching in Veterans Day parades these days.

Even fewer are chauffeured along the route, named the parade's grand marshal and given the military's second-highest honor – and a key to the city – before a cheering crowd of 50,000.

But in 1951, Eliseo Garcia did just that.

In a front page story Nov. 12, 1951, The Bee described how the city of Sacramento paid tribute to Garcia in the Armistice Day parade that stretched for 40 blocks.

"The generals, colonels and other dignitaries stepped aside to give the place of honor to a slim, shy … technical sergeant, Eliseo Garcia," it said.

Garcia would serve 21 more years in the Army, raise five children, work as a prison counselor and touch the lives of hundreds of students before his death June 10. He was 79.

"He had always wanted to join the Army," said Monique Hale, Garcia's granddaughter.

He first tried joining the Army at age 14 but was turned away. A year later, he enlisted after convincing his father to lie about his age.

Garcia – known as "Chico," or "little boy," to the members of L Company, 23rd Infantry Regiment – served his first tour in Korea from August 1950 to May 1951. He was a squad leader and witnessed some of the worst fighting of the war.

"Everybody knew him as 'that crazy kid' because he did things nobody else did," said Col. Ralph Hockley, who served as an artillery officer in the same regiment and befriended Garcia after the war. "He was afraid of nothing."

Garcia was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army's second highest honor, at the Sacramento parade. He was cited for taking out two enemy machine-gun crews near the Natkong River in September 1950.

According to the award citation, he was wounded in the assault but pressed on with his attack and killed eight enemy soldiers with his grenades, enabling his platoon to attain its objective.

Before coming home on leave, however, Garcia would fight his way out of Chipyong-ni, where he celebrated his 17th birthday surrounded by 25,000 Chinese soldiers.

"Some of the guys were teasing me that I was getting some unwanted guests for my birthday," Garcia said in a 2009 interview.

Garcia earned a Silver Star for his actions at Chipyong-ni. It was one of three he would earn over the course of his career.

Other awards included five Purple Hearts, four Bronze Stars, and two combat infantryman badges, one for service in Korea and the other for service in Vietnam.

Explaining his valor, Garcia told a reporter in 2008: "I'm a Christian, so I believed that whatever happened, I'd go to a better place."

Garcia spent the years after the war moving between Army bases. In 1955, he married his wife, Peggy Jo. From 1966 until 1990, the Garcia family would call Sacramento home.

During his time in the service, Garcia earned his high school equivalency certificate and began taking college courses. He spoke seven languages and had begun studying Hebrew.

He retired from the Army in 1972 with the rank of command sergeant major, though "he was never actually retired," said Hale, his granddaugher. "There was not a moment of his life when he was not working."

In the 1980s, Garcia would raise his grandson Roger Jaramillo, who currently serves in the 29th Brigade Service Corps and has completed four tours of duty in Iraq.

"Every single time I would wake up, when I was supposed to be in bed, he would be reading the Bible, and I would sit down with him, and that's how I learned to read," said Jaramillo.

He said his grandfather didn't guide him to military service. "He thought I was too smart. He wanted better things for me.

"But I wanted to follow in his footsteps," Jaramillo said. "I wanted to experience that for myself."

Garcia began working as a state correctional officer in Tracy in the 1980s.

In 1990, he transferred to Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, where he worked for 14 years. He also worked as a tutor at two area grade schools.

After retiring from the prison system, Garcia moved to Marysville, Wash. He was active with the local post of Veterans of Foreign Wars, and post commander Willy Hughes said Garcia would go to high schools on Veterans Day to teach students about what it meant to serve.

"It was very neat to see him in parades. He could still fit in his Army uniform," said Hughes.

In 2011, 60 years after participating in his first Veterans Day parade, Garcia walked his last in Washington state with a cane, said Hughes.

In 2007, Garcia published a book about his years in the Army, titled "Youth in War." Family members say he was working on a book about his devout Christian beliefs before his death.

Garcia is survived by his wife, Peggy Jo; his brother, Raymond; his children, Lee, Darlene, Shirley, Nathan, and Linda; 14 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

A graveside service will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at St. Mary's Catholic Cemetery. A nine-man honor guard from the California National Guard will be present.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Wounded Warrior Fund, 4899 Belfort Road, Suite 300, Jacksonville, FL 32256.

Call The Bee's Jack Newsham, (916) 321-1100. Follow him in Twitter @TheNewsHam.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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