Veteran eyes career as cowboy
By Kelly Feser Eells
Julio Contreras, one of the 33 veterans
featured in "Ojai Valley's Veterans Stories" (written
and produced by local residents Chuck Bennett, Dave Pressey,
and Sanford Drucker, veterans of Vietnam, Korea, and World War
II, respectively), can trace his family's roots back to the Yaqui,
the Apache, and Spanish conquistadors - the three "warrior
races" most often credited with colonizing Southern California.
The second of seven children, Contreras was born in Santa Barbara.
His father died when he was 12 and, shortly thereafter, his mother
was hospitalized with tuberculosis. "In those days, they
quarantined you for three to four years when you came down with
TB, so we, my brothers and sister, had to be put into foster
Contreras and younger brother, Manuel, were sent to live with
"Elizabeth Barnes, a wonderful woman who showed me how to
believe in myself," on her ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley.
It was while living there and attending Los Olivos High School
that Contreras first became smitten with Ojai.
"I played a lot of sports in high school," he explained,
"and we used to compete with a lot of the schools here.
Coming here for games at Thacher, Villanova ... that's when I
decided that this was where I wanted to live one day."
That day came 18 years ago for the three-time Commander of Veterans
of Foreign Wars Post 11461 (Ojai Valley); full-time electrician;
part-time vocational instructor; ace tennis player, and avid
"I love horses," Contreras said. "Hopefully,
I'll be retiring in four or five years and getting a few of my
own." Smiling, he adds, "Maybe, become a cowboy; my
dad was a cowboy."
Indeed, the man who "carries the colors of a proud Marine"
in Ojai's Independence Day parade each year, is known for his
ever-present smile. Few outside his family or post know he is
also a man who's suffered incomprehensible loss.
Three of Contreras's brothers died young. "My little brother,
John, followed me into the Marines. Only 18 years old,"
John was killed in Vietnam.
Another brother, Charlie, "the best Marine I'd ever seen,"
became a drill instructor. "He made it back from Vietnam
alive," said Contreras (who did two tours in Vietnam and
was preparing for a third when a friend talked him out of it),
but was killed by a drunk driver at age 26.
"And my brother David," he said, fondly recalling how,
"for a while, there were four of us at Camp Pendleton at
the same time," was an MP. "He spent four years in
the service, got a degree...then came down with a kidney infection,
which he died from at age 35."
Between tours of duty, Contreras married for the first time and
had three daughters, the youngest of whom, tragically, died of
leukemia at age four. This loss, he indicates, was perhaps the
hardest to bear.
Still, Contreras isn't one to dwell on the past. The subsequent
breakup of his first marriage left him a single parent to two
young girls, a role he viewed more as privilege than duty. He
was likewise privileged to find lasting love in Danna, who became
not only his wife, but "a mother to the girls, helping me
His greatest privilege, however, was "serving my country.
Family. Freedom. This country. That's what's important."
The Vietnam War, Contreras concedes, "was a political disaster."
And, while it "would have been very easy for me (or my brothers)
to go to Canada or Mexico ... the men who served went because
we all owe something to this country."
Much as "the disgraceful way so many Vietnam vets were treated
upon their return home - people were cursing at me, giving me
the middle finger," pains him, "I was hurt more by
people's apathy. But patriotism, which was gone for so long in
this country, well, I think it's coming back.
"I'd encourage everyone to read this book, 'Ojai Valley's
Veterans Stories. Hate the war, any war, if you must. But please,
just don't hate the warrior."
The Ojai Valley News
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