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Thursday, November 6, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Large / Times staff columnist

Son's death is a lesson in the importance of affirming life daily

Mushroom Montoya is not afraid to wear purple women's socks. Partly it's the artist in him. Art is his hobby, but more than that he's just never wasted much effort being conventional, and many of his life experiences have reinforced that.

He's a veteran of two tours of duty in Vietnam and a dedicated father who lives every day with the pain of his first son's death.

He's a man who knows that life doesn't always take us where we think we're headed. But he'd tell you a couple of other things too. That life is too short and too precious not to have fun with. That we all carry a bit of God around in us, and we ought to let it shine in the way we live.

Anyway, he likes to match his socks to his shirts. Tuesday, when we got together at his office in Auburn, he was wearing a purple shirt and had a purple hat perched on his head. Men's socks come in only a few boring colors, so his wife, Denise, suggested big women's socks.

A lot of grown men would react the same way a fourth-grade boy would: Eeeew. But not Montoya.

He is an architect and a program manager for the General Services Administration. His wife's job brought them to King County in 1991. I met him at a Northwest Kidney Foundation gathering some time back and heard from him a few weeks ago because he was thinking about Veterans Day, which is next week.

Montoya is not a fan of war. He says he's not so naïve as to think we'll do away with armies anytime soon, but he suggested we should start a diplomatic academy to go along with the military academies we already have.

"The Diplomacy Academy graduates would join government service to talk the world out of war," he wrote in an e-mail.

Montana's family started out in New Mexico and moved to California. In 1968, when he was 18, Montoya's father marched him down to the Navy recruiting office in Long Beach and signed him up. "He said he didn't want me to be a guy wearing a green target over there in Vietnam."

Montoya wound up in combat anyway. He did a stint in the reserves, got married, had a son, got divorced, then got called up again in 1971. He put in for a ship scheduled for duty in Europe, but once he was aboard, the ship was rerouted to Vietnam.

His first day there he saw three people carrying a box on shore. A gunner fired on them. There were screams, and body parts flew. Two of them got up. Another shot from the big gun. No screams, just flying body parts.

"Those were people," he remembered saying. He didn't know if they were the enemy, but he knew they were people.

His first captain kept making mistakes and losing men. To compensate, the captain worked harder to raise his enemy kill rate.

Montoya started a ritual to help himself cope. Every day after dinner he would run around the smokestack and scream until he got the day's business out of his system.

"We were all gung-ho sailors out there to fight communism ... to do the right thing." It didn't take long to become disillusioned, but they were still in the midst of war. "We all did what we needed to do to get the job done."

The Navy sent him back for a second year in Vietnam, then he came back to finish his service with a year in the reserves. It should have been easy, but his conscience wouldn't allow him to remain in the military. He filed for conscientious objector status and left the service six months early, or as he says, much later than he ought to have left given his feelings about the war.

"My purpose on this planet is not to kill and to destroy," he says. "If anything, it is to grow things."

When he was in fourth grade in Albuquerque, he decided he'd like to be either a priest, a dentist or an architect.

He came from a family of devout Catholics who went to Mass every day, which explains the priest part. He has no idea why he once thought about being a dentist, but he got interested in architecture because the dads of a couple of classmates came to school and talked about the work and made it sound cool.

After the Navy, he spent four years in seminary, then studied art before settling on architecture.

He doesn't fault people who go into the military, and in fact his son, Jeremy, became a Navy medic.

Montoya and his wife have two sons and several years ago decided they'd like to have a daughter too, so they adopted a child from Korea. Later they adopted a Siberian girl.

While they were in the middle of that second adoption, their oldest son, Jeremy, was killed.

Jeremy was 20 years old and living in New Mexico. In October 1992 he was on his way back to his Naval Reserve unit after lunch when a car turned in front of his motorcycle.

Montoya says he and his wife are pained watching television interviews with the parents of young people killed in Iraq.

"They're about to enter a new phase of life: Grief 101," he says. "Americans don't do grief well." A child's death hurts more than anything, and it never stops hurting, but people are too often left on their own to cope.

It's hard to talk about it, and it's hard for other people to listen, he says. But parents want and need to talk.

Montoya says he and his wife have learned "compassion, how to console, how to listen, how to be quiet." His son was an organ donor, which has helped the Montoyas deal with his death.

They've always been active volunteers, but now they are more involved in organ-donation work. They have formed bonds with some of the people who received Jeremy's organs.

Each year they visit the man whose life was saved by Jeremy's heart. "I always wanted to listen to it, but before I could ask there would always be a lump. One or two Augusts ago, when he opened the door I said, 'Can I listen to my son's heart?' "

He stood with his head on the other man's chest and cried. It was a life-affirming moment for him.

Affirming life is what we ought to dedicate ourselves to. He'll be thinking about his son on Veterans Day, of course, but also about all those other sons, daughters, mothers, fathers who die needlessly in war.

It doesn't really matter to him what flag they live under or what language they speak. In the beginning, he says, there was God, and that must mean that everything and everyone was created out of a bit of God. "It would stop war if everyone realized it."

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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