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Family remembering loved one who made the ultimate sacrifice

Peter John Martinez, 18, died in Vietnam. | Photo provided by familiy

A rumor of war . . .

His name was Peter.

Specifically, U.S. Army SP4 Peter John Martinez.

Killed in Vietnam on May 5, 1970, Peter died two days before his 19th birthday in a war once classified as a rumor.

Peter’s story is not unlike all the young heroes who died in military service, men and women with barely a toehold in adulthood let alone a stranglehold on life.

Vaporized in a second.

Now valorous for eternity.

On Monday, Memorial Day, Peter, one of nine children born and raised in Little Village and a former street gang member who opted to step up for his country — will be privately honored by those who loved him.

On Saturday, his service to his country was to be noted in a Memorial Day Wreath Laying Ceremony at Daley Plaza.

“I told his sister, Olga, we would not forget her brother Peter,” said former 11th Ward Ald. Jim Balcer, a former U.S. Marine who has devoted his life to the needs of veterans. I promised her we would honor him, and we did. He became part of our wreath-laying ceremony.”

Olga Bonilla won’t forget either.

‘“I was only 3 years old when my brother passed away,” said Olga, Peter’s younger sister who now works in the 11th Ward Boys and Girls Club in Bridgeport.

“Everyone always tells me that Peter was always thinking and talking about me in Vietnam — but I don’t remember him too much because I was so young,” she said.

“But when I got older I would tell my mother about this strange feeling I would sometimes get, like something or someone was always pulling at my toes.

“That’s when she told me that when I was little, I would sit in my highchair, and Peter would pull my toes and tease and play with me in that way.

“Since he passed away, I now know it is my brother, Peter, pulling my toe.”

Peter’s older brother Fredrick has his memories, too.

“Peter and I were kids in the ’50s together, we always went together for Boys Club once a week, were together all those years, growing up on the Southwest Side at 26th and Pulaski in the Little Village neighborhood,” Fredrick said.

“In the ’60s, late ’60s actually, Peter was in a gang, 17 years old — he never got into trouble — but when he hit 18 years old, he volunteered to go into the military.

“I was told days before his 19th birthday the people he was serving with celebrated his birthday with some pound cake.

Two days later, Peter was killed.

“Peter was serving as security, watching over equipment in a building when he volunteered to help other soldiers going out on a mission.

“That’s the way he was. He went to help. He was in a Jeep which broke down, and when Peter stepped out of the vehicle, somebody activated a bomb and it exploded in his face. He died instantly.

“I was 21 years old when my mother told me Peter passed away, and I was very upset because I thought he would be coming home and raising a family the way I have,” Fredrick said.

“I am a grandpa right now. I had always thought he would be around with his other brothers and sisters, some who are still living in Little Village. Never to have his own family. What a sacrifice. Peter was very close to our parents, we all were, we are a close family.

“We kept in touch by letter. I don’t have the letters anymore,

I wish I did.

“On Memorial Day, I celebrate by just thinking of him and every other person in the military, I respect all of them,” Fredrick added.

Charlie Watson, who served in the same Army platoon with Peter in 1970, remembers how well their differences blended.

“Peter and I were close, although I was a little older. He was a good upfront man,” Watson said. “If he said he was going to do something, he did it, no matter what.

“Color did not mean anything to him. I was a redneck from Alabama, and Peter was a Puerto Rican from the South Side of Chicago.

“We all bleed the same color blood. Peter was a firm believer in that, and we all knew it.

“The day Peter passed away … I was there and I helped get his body out. That’s all I want to say about that.

“I actually just spoke to Peter’s brother, Fredrick. We talked almost an hour, and I told him I had to go and look in some of my old stuff. That I had some pictures … we took some pictures of each other a few days prior to us going out on that mission where Peter was killed.

“The photo was taken seven to 10 days prior to Peter being killed. He was a good man, a good friend and a loss to us all.”

But on Monday, when our country reserves time to remember those who died to secure our freedom, Olga will be looking at her feet.

And it’s a safe bet she will no longer be wondering who is tickling her toes.

Sneedlings . . .

Saturday’s birthdays: Andre 3000, 42; Terry Collins, 68; and Chris Colfer, 27. . . . Sunday’s birthdays: Marco Rubio, 46; Michael Oher, 31, and Gladys Knight, 73.