Vietnam veteran documents the story about war hero

Alumnus publishes another book honoring past student’s service

Tess Petrillo, Staff Reporter
Originally published June 13, 2019


Alumnus Jerry Smith, graduate of 1966, has spent many years researching and documenting the stories of 19 ballard alumni who died in the Vietnam War. After writing The Ballard 19, Smith’s wife notified him about the existence of Daniel Chavez, a graduate of 2003 who was a lance corporal in Iraq.

Smith then committed to documenting the story of this marine, in order to shed light on the heroism that Chavez displayed throughout his time in the war. On June 9th Smith’s new book “Valor in Iraq,” the story of Daniel Chavez, was published.


The research process

Smith began his research on 18 of the veterans because he wanted to make sure that their stories were told. “By the grace of God I got to come home, but the 19 of our Ballard Beavers didn’t get to,” Smith said. “It’s all well and good to write a book about yourself, but what I think you really need to do is honor those that didn’t make it back.

“The next day I was contacting Principal Keven if there was any list of names of the 19 that died in Vietnam, he shot me a picture of the plaque with 18 of the names and off I went,” Smith said.  I worked on it for two whole years before taking it around to the families to make sure I hadn’t missaid anything or if anything was negative.”

Smith took the work he put into his book very seriously, and made sure to confirm with the family of each alum that all the information he included in each chapter was factual. After visiting one family of the 18, he learned that there was a 19th member that was not on the plaque he had seen.

Smith spent the next several months tracking down a family member of the alum to finish the last chapter of his book. Since the alum had died almost 50 years ago, it was difficult to find a living family member, “It took a whole other year to finish his chapter. It took six months alone just to track down a family member,” he said. When The Ballard 19 was finally complete, he discovered Daniel Chavez.

“It was my wife Kathy who said, ‘I think you oughta do a book on Daniel.’ As soon as we got The Ballard 19 published, I began trying to track the family,” Smith explained. “First I wanted to get permission from the family to do a book on Daniel, which took about six or seven months to get contact with the family.”


Documenting a hero’s story

After Smith was able to get in contact with the Chavez family he made sure to continuously review his book throughout the writing process. “I get together with the family all the time to go over the book,” Smith said. “Lidia, Daniel’s mother, had an idea of what she wanted the cover to be on the book which is the photograph you see on the front of the book.”

Through his visits and discussions with various family members, Smith was able to formulate the heroic story of Daniel Chavez. “He was seventeen years old when he graduated, he went right into the marine corps at that time. He went to tank school to learn how to operate tanks in the marine corps, and then went to do extensive training in Eastern California. Then his tank company was deployed to Iraq in March of 2005.”

“The main reason it is called Valor in Iraq is because of what happened in June of 2005. His tank, called The Liberator, was rolling down from Haditha Dam. And while the tank was rolling down to the town of Haditha it rolled over an IED, an improvised explosive device, with 55 millimeter howitzer shells that were set up with a charge that was activated by a cellphone. When his tank rolled over this explosive device it lifted this 70 ton tank off to the side of the road.”

Since the tank was on fire and the engine compartment was about to explode, the tank commander ordered everyone out of the tank. Chavez, the commander and “gunner” jumped out of the tank and started running away from the tank. In the midst of fleeing the burning tank, Chavez realized that the driver had been left behind. The man was still inside the tank.

“So he runs back and climbs on top of this burning tank and realized he couldn’t open the drivers hatch because it had be sprung shut from the explosion. The driver was still alive, trying like crazy to get the hatch open. So Daniel used this huge steel metal pry bar to get the hatch door open on this burning tank and got the driver out. They got out and ran away right before the thing blew up.”


Early memories

This is just one of the stories that made Chavez the hero that Smith depicts him as in his book. In addition to the war, Oscar Chavez, Daniel’s oldest brother, speaks very highly of the beloved man that Chavez was even before he went to war.

“His smile, he had a smile that everyone knew him by,” Oscar Chavez said. “He was not one to judge anybody. He would help anybody no matter what the issue was, he would lend a hand to anyone who needed it.”

Oscar explained how Chavez does not judge anybody. He said that Chavez was on the football team in high school but what he really enjoyed most was playing baseball in their own neighborhood, the Central District.

“Our neighborhood wasn’t the best, but he always played baseball on the field with his friends anyways,” Oscar Chavez said. “One day when he was 10 or 11 years old, they were outside playing and he saw these older teenagers walking around so he called out to them, ‘Hey come over and play with us.’ And the funny part is; they did.”

Considering the part of the neighborhood and the age of the boys, Oscar could only assume that his younger brother had invited one of the community’s gang members to come play ball with him.

When asked about the story of Chavez saving the driver from the burning tank, Oscar said that something like that was expected from Chavez.

“He never wanted to leave anybody behind, and he would always wait for people. He never wanted anyone to feel left out,” Oscar Chavez explained. “Like at the movies, if somebody had not shown up yet Danny would always wait for them before going in, he always waited for people no matter what.”


Preserving a legacy

Chavez was cherished as much as he was heroic. There is a plaque dedicated to him in the folley, as well as the members of the Ballard 19. While this tribute does honor Chavez for who he was, Smith explains the purpose behind writing his story.

“You just see a person’s name on a plaque, you don’t have any idea what they’ve gone through or what they’ve done or what they’ve accomplished,” Smith said. “It’s pretty gratifying that I can get the names of the 19 out, plus Daniel Chavez.”

Documenting someone’s story is crucial to the preservation of their legacy. With the publication of Valor in IraqSmith was able to successfully release Chavez’s story to the public.

However books like these are only significant when the people utilize them and make an effort to read and learn about the stories of people like Chavez.