Today, as he does every Memorial Day, Los Alamitos Chief of Police Eric R. Nunez will gather his family and visit All Souls Cemetery in Long Beach to spend time in quiet prayer to remember and honor his father, Army Sgt. Rudolph Algar Nunez.
Although he would do anything to take back the terrible events of June 13, 1966, Nunez said what happened in the immediate aftermath of his father’s death made him the law enforcement leader he is today — not only in Los Alamitos, but statewide.
“If you tell a child something long and often enough,” said Nunez, who was 4 when his father was killed in action in Vietnam, “they will believe it.”
She crawled across the living room floor and locked herself in the bathroom when the two soldiers, dressed in Class A uniforms, showed up at the front door of her sister and brother-in-law’s home in Corona.
Mary Nunez, 25, thought if she stayed locked away long enough, she wouldn’t have to hear the unthinkable news.
She and her husband were the same age.
In addition to Eric, they had two other sons: Rudolph Jr., 2 ½, and Rodney, 10 months.
Mary’s husband wanted more — “two more boys,” Rudolph Nunez told a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, “so I can have a basketball team.”
A Catholic, Rudolph carried a Bible on his very dangerous assignments in Vietnam. He had been in the Army for eight years, but had only been in Vietnam for a couple of months.
Trained in jungle warfare for a year in Okinawa, Japan, the muscular Nunez, whose smile could brighten the darkest of places, was point man on a five-soldier, long-range reconnaissance patrol (LLRP) —- men who packed relatively lightly as they sought to remain invisible on their deep ventures into enemy-held territory.
On June 13, 1966, Sgt. Nunez and his team were 50 miles north of Saigon and on their way back to a rally point to be picked up by helicopter. Nunez was some 100 feet or so ahead of the other men on a jungle path when, suddenly, birds burst out of the lush greenery.
Nunez gestured to his four men to retreat.
Then, the jungle lit up.
Nunez and his soldiers with Troop D, 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry, 1st Infantry Division had run into a well-entrenched and fully armed Viet Cong force of about 160 insurgents.
Nunez managed to fire off his M16 rifle, but he couldn’t avoid the enemy rounds. He was riddled across the chest.
As he lay dying, Nunez managed to remove a transmitter from his back and pull the antenna to guide U.S. fighter aircraft to his location.
The move meant certain death, but the bombs that soon dropped on his position allowed the four other soldiers to escape and safely get to the rally point.
For his extraordinary heroism, Nunez posthumously was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Purple Heart, and the South Vietnamese Medal of Valor.
During his retirement special that capped his legendary career as a TV news anchorman, Dan Rather, who cut his broadcasting teeth as a reporter during the Vietnam War, told a national audience he had three distinct memories of Vietnam:
Arriving in the country and marveling at the stark contrast between its natural beauty and the ugliness of war, experiencing the Fall of Saigon, and witnessing the elite Army Airborne Rangers’ Tiger Force recovery of the body of their fellow team member, Army Sgt. Rudolph Algar Nunez.
Memorabilia of the Vietnam War — books, photos, a cap — sit on shelves in the office of Los Alamitos PD Chief Eric Nunez.
Nunez, 54, has the same giant smile of his father.
He talks about him with great affection.
Although Nunez only was 4 when his father was killed, he has three distinct memories of him.
He recalls his meaty hands resting on his arm as the two watched TV. Before he joined the Army, Rudolph Nunez was a mechanic.
He remembers the drive back from the hospital after one of his brothers was born.
“Dad,” Eric asked. “Why is his face all red?”
Rudolph Nunez laughed.
“Your face was red, too, when you were born,” he replied.
And he recalls seeing snow for the first time when his father was stationed at Ford Hood in Killeen, Texas.
Eric was so excited he ran outside. He slipped and hit his head on the driveway.
His father ran out and picked him up. Eric’s head was bleeding a bit.
“Keep him inside,” Rudolph told Mary. “I’ll be right back.”
About 10 minutes later, Rudolph brought him back outside. He had made a snowman. He handed his son a broom to use as a stick.
“You’re going to play Army now,” Rudolph told his son. “See that snowman? That’s the enemy who hurt your head. Charge at him.”
The death of Army Sgt. Rudolph Algar Nunez plunged his family into grief.
They struggled financially, emotionally and spiritually.
Chief Nunez recalls the countless visitors who flooded his mother’s home in the days following his father’s death.
You’re the man of the house, they told him.
It’s your responsibility to help your mother raise your brothers.
Over and over they told him such things, and the youngster came to believe it.
Nunez, who spent his formative years in Norwalk, was captain of his football team at John Glenn High School.
Seeking to follow the path of his father, he joined the Army at 18 and was the honor graduate of his class. He only served briefly and was honorably discharged after asthma prevented him from being sent to Germany.
After dabbling in insurance and construction, Nunez, at the relatively advanced age of 29, decided to become a police officer. He liked the structured environment of the military, and two cousins – Chris Nunez, currently a sergeant at the Buena Park PD, and Mark Nunez, a former Fullerton PD officer – recommended he become a cop.
Nunez put himself through the police academy at Golden West College. He was president of his graduating class, ranked second in his class overall and was selected by his peers as the Most Inspirational Recruit.
The La Palma PD hired him in 1991.
Nunez spent 24 years at that agency, rising through the ranks to become chief of police, a position he held for five years before becoming chief of the Los Alamitos PD 1½ years ago.
Nunez is past president of the Orange County Chiefs of Police and Sheriff’s Association and is third vice president on the executive board of the California Police Chiefs Association.
He and his wife, Molly, his partner of 22 years, have four children: Kyle, 27, a captain and KC-135 pilot in the Air Force, daughter Shelby, 24, a salesperson for a local auto dealership, and daughters Haley, 17, and Emily, 9.
Beloved husband and father.
The gravestone at All Souls Cemetery also cites the military service of Rudolph Nunez and his Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart.
Based on the official Citation for the Distinguished Service Cross, a number of military veterans have told Nunez that his father should have been awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest and most prestigious personal military decoration.
The police chief says he might look into that process as it would be something that if deemed worthy should be corrected.
“It would be something I would love to make happen while my mother is alive to receive such an honor on behalf of her children’s father,” he says.
For now — and especially today — Nunez and his family will honor the man he barely got to know, but whom he holds dearly in his heart.
Mary Nunez Taber, now 76, will too.
Eric Nunez says that as a leader, he honors the philosophy of something he learned in the Army: Mission First, People Always.
In other words, the mission is the most important thing, but it can’t be achieved without taking care of the people who are tasked with getting that mission accomplished.
“I believe it was my job to take care of my brothers,” Nunez says of his childhood. “I took that responsibility seriously.”
Just as his father did, in Vietnam —- paying for that responsibility with his life.
Sgt. Nunez’s fellow soldiers in Vietnam often would see him playing with local village children, and realized immediately he was a father — with three sons back home in California and, hopefully someday, two more on the way.
That day never came.
But Memorial Day comes every year, and Eric Nunez will never miss visiting his father’s final resting place.
In a speech last year at the Memorial Ceremony and Candlelight Vigil at the Orange County Sheriff’s Regional Training Academy in Tustin, Nunez said:
I feel that it is important for those who have suffered the greatest loss, the deepest loss, to know that their loved one died with honor, an honor that grows more distinct every passing year and does not fade away like so many other things so often do in our lives.
Nunez spoke about the pain, struggles and the profound loneliness the follows the death of a loved one, and how visits, condolences and prayers help families and close friends of the fallen.
And in a message directed at those in law enforcement, he spoke about how the fallen have already honored them — and continue to do so.
They are the evidence that what we do has meaning, they are the proof that what we do has purpose, and they are the absolute truth that what we do is truly noble.