HAMMOND | A headstone provided by the federal government honoring a Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient from East Chicago sat in city storage for 42 years before finally being placed at the Marine's grave Saturday.
Members of local veterans organizations gathered at St. John-St. Joseph Catholic Cemeteries in Hammond at noon Saturday for the ceremony honoring Lance Cpl. Emilio De La Garza.
Rey Robles of the Calumet Detachment of the Marine Corps League, said the headstone — which resembles those in place at Arlington National Cemetery — was presented to De La Garza's family when he was awarded the Medal of Honor, but was never placed at the grave site.
"I don't know why it happened, but it is there now and we're giving him the respect and honor he deserves," Robles said.
De La Garza, a U.S. Marine, fell on a hand grenade thrown by a Viet Cong soldier in April 1970, sacrificing his life in an effort to save fellow soldiers. The 20-year-old from East Chicago was killed two days after spending time on leave with his wife, Rosemary, in Hawaii.
The couple had a 2-year-old daughter, Renee.
President Richard Nixon presented the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award, to De La Garza's family later that year.
Robles was a year ahead of De La Garza at Washington High School and was serving at Camp Pendleton when the fellow Marine was killed in action.
"He was a quiet guy, would do anything in the world for you," Robles said of De La Garza.
Renee De La Garza Lugo, De La Garza's daughter, said the headstone was initially sent to her grandparents.
The Chicago woman speculated the headstone was never placed at her father's grave site because another ceremony might have been too difficult for her grandmother.
"My grandmother was never the same afterward," Lugo said. "Now, it's being placed where it should be."
Armando Cortez, of Hammond, is a member of the Marine Corps League and attended Saturday's service. Cortez was born in Mexico but raised in East Chicago. He recalled walking by the career center in East Chicago bearing De La Garza's name as a child.
"Every time I walked in front of that building going to school, I used to think, 'I wonder what he did, why they named a building after him?'" Cortez said.
Cortez said he learned of De La Garza's sacrifice.
"He motivated me, a Mexican-American from the Harbor, to join the Marine Corps," Cortez said. "I could never, ever repay him."