Army Spc. Daniel Fernández died almost 50 years ago when he dived on an enemy grenade in Vietnam, saving the lives of four buddies.
Fernández became a military legend at age 21 for his heroism and because President Lyndon B. Johnson posthumously awarded him the Medal of Honor, America’s highest decoration for valor in combat.
Students at Valencia High School in Los Lunas, Fernández’s hometown, are all young enough to be his grandchildren. But because of Fernández’s stirring biography, Vietnam is more than a chapter in their history book.
After learning about Fernández sacrificing himself so that others could live, the students asked state legislators to commemorate the anniversary of his death on Feb. 18, 1966. They traveled to the Capitol on Tuesday to see the state Senate and House of Representatives approve memorials honoring Fernández.
Peter Fernández, a younger brother of Daniel, said it’s hard to believe a half-century has passed since he lost his brother to war. Peter Fernández was just 17 when Daniel died. Peter and his wife, Priscilla, were at the Capitol for the ceremonies. Priscilla said a Valencia High School staff member, Laurie Kastelic, helped the students in their effort to bring legislative recognition to Daniel Fernández.
The Vietnam War divided America in the 1960s and ’70s. Peter Fernández said his brother enlisted in 1962, before the fighting escalated and the country splintered because of it. Daniel Fernández was on his second tour in Vietnam when his patrol was ambushed by a Viet Cong rifle company.
A sergeant was wounded, and then the Viet Cong threw a grenade at the American soldiers who were treating him.
Fernández’s citation for the Medal of Honor recounts the next moments, his last. “Realizing there was no time for the wounded sergeant or the other men to protect themselves from the grenade blast, Sp4c. Fernández vaulted over the wounded sergeant and threw himself on the grenade as it exploded, saving the lives of his four comrades at the sacrifice of his life.”
Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, who sponsored the Senate memorial, said Fernández’s selflessness is something that New Mexico will always take pride in. A companion memorial to Fernández in the House was sponsored by Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas, and Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Belen.