SANTA FE — Filemon Serrano and Steve Gonzales Duran probably did not know that they inspired other men.

They grew up at opposite ends of New Mexico during a time when Americans were beginning to hear about Vietnam and the war there. Serrano became a soldier and Duran a sailor.

Both ended up in combat, fighting a war that so many others wanted to avoid, forget about or simply end because they saw no point to it.

Serrano and Duran entered military service after starting down very different paths in life.

Every high school has a jock who stands out from the crowd. Serrano was one of those, though he carried himself without any sense of self-importance, friends say.

At Farmington High School, Serrano played with an intensity that made people remember him. Football may have been his best sport, but Serrano won the state wrestling championship as a 138-pound senior in 1965. Farmington High had started a wrestling team only a year before.

Two of Serrano's younger brothers, Jimmy and Beto, also would become state wrestling champions. Boys grew up wanting to be like Phil, the shortened name that everybody in Farmington used for Serrano.

Serrano had hometown idols too.

As a sophomore football player in 1962, he had looked to a senior named Jim Patterson for help with the playbook and in developing himself as a lineman. Patterson, in turn, had modeled himself after an older boy named Don Kunitz, who went on to play football at the University of Arizona.

Patterson and Kunitz each played left guard.


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Both wore number 60. Serrano played the same position and chose the same number because he wanted to be like them.

After graduating from high school, Serrano enrolled at San Juan College. He dropped out, which in those days was almost a sure ticket to Vietnam. Soon after Serrano quit school, the Army drafted him.

By that point, Patterson had lost track of him. Patterson had gone away to the University of New Mexico. Years rolled by with him unaware that Serrano had become a solder.

In July 1968, Serrano deployed to Vietnam as an infantryman. There may not have been a more turbulent year in his lifetime.

President Lyndon Johnson had announced in March that he would not seek re-election, driven from office by his escalation of the Vietnam War. Violence followed at home with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

Pfc. Serrano had been in South Vietnam about eight months when a nighttime battle began against attacking Viet Cong on March 20, 1969. Serrano died in combat that night. He was the 18th soldier from New Mexico killed in the war during the first three months of 1969.

Patterson happened to return to Farmington for a family visit early that spring. The whole town seemed to be filled with American flags.

He learned then that Farmington was holding Phil Serrano Day to honor of his old teammate, a casualty of war at age 22.

Patterson said he was stunned. Now semiretired in Bainbridge Island, Wash., Patterson still chokes up when talking about Serrano.

"He had a tremendous amount of honor and integrity in everything he did," Patterson said.

Phil's older brother, Claude, had served a year in Vietnam and come home. Everybody was sure Phil would too, said a younger brother, Danny Serrano.

"We looked at Phil as invincible," he said.

In the 44 years since Serrano's death, Patterson said he has often drawn inspiration from the boy who worked so hard to be a good football player, then went off to serve his country in Vietnam.

A Farmington High School reunion brought Patterson and Kunitz back together a couple of years ago. They talked about Serrano, how he had worn number 60 because he wanted to be like them. What Serrano would never know is how much the older players had grown to admire him.

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Steve Duran, one of 10 kids in a Deming family, saw opportunity in military service.

Duran was about 18 months older than Serrano, but his interests were different, not extending to sports or school.

Duran dropped out of Deming High School in 1963 and joined the Navy at age 17.

"I think he got fed up with school," said Duran's brother, Paul, six years older than Steve.

Luna County, where Deming is the largest city, today has an unemployment rate of about 20 percent. Job opportunities were perhaps even more limited in the early 1960s, Paul Duran said.

Joining the Navy meant more than a job to Steve Duran. By enlisting, he carried on a family tradition.

All five sons in the Duran family and one of the daughters would serve in the military. Steve Duran's rank in the Navy was hospitalman.

Paul Duran himself was a hospital corpsman in the Navy in the 1950s, so he knew the job well. With fighting in Vietnam about to intensify, he said he was wary of his brother's decision to enlist, fearing that Steve would end up working as a medical specialist on battlefields.

It did not take long for that to happen.

The start of Steve Duran's tour date is not recorded in military records. But, having just turned 20 in the summer of 1965, he was in Quang Ngai Province of South Vietnam.

Duran's family would later learn that he was part of Operation Starlite, an offensive maneuver in which Marines were deployed to battle by air and water. It was dangerous duty for everyone, including hospital corpsmen.

Duran died in combat on Aug. 18, 1965, felled by an explosion.

He was buried in San Mateo County, Calif., nearer to where his parents and some siblings had moved for better job prospects.

No one took Steve's death harder than his younger brother, Richard. Two years apart, they were exceptionally close.

Steve's death would inspire Richard Duran to join the Marines. He served for 27 years, 1967 to 1994.

In that stretch, Richard Duran did two tours in Vietnam, from 1968 to 1970. He lives today in Okinawa.

For a family that had lost one son in Vietnam, sending another one to war was wrenching.

But Richard Duran wanted to serve in Vietnam, as his brother did.

Even in death, Steve Duran maintained the ability to inspire his little brother.

Milan Simonich, Santa Fe bureau chief of Texas-New Mexico Newspapers, can be reached at or 505-820-6898. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com.Ba