Dying Veteran Reunited With His Horses For One Last Time

A dying Vietnam War veteran received his last wish — a reunion with his beloved horses. Roberto Gonzalez, one of the few handicapped racehorse trainers in the Lone Star State, was able to see his horses even though he was a patient at a San Antonio hospital.

Gonzalez has been paralyzed since May 1970, when he was shot only a few months after starting active duty in Vietnam. He was just 19 years old. He was one of the first patients at the Spinal Cord Injury Center at the Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital when it opened in 1974, and where he eventually died. Gonzalez was diagnosed with severe liver and kidney issues, and had been hospitalized for the past 10 months.

Racehorse trainer

After returning home from war, Gonzalez pursued his passion for training racehorses, and did so for the next 40 years. Despite his disability, Gonzalez actively ranched and hunted, in addition to training racehorses. His horses raced in Texas and Arizona. His wife, Rosario, told a local Texas TV station that her husband “loved his horses, he loved cattle, he loved ranching and farming. He was proud to serve his country.”

Last wish

The nursing staff had asked Gonzalez if he had any last wishes, as they and he knew he didn’t have long to live. His organs were failing. The lifelong horseman, whose family has been with him throughout his ordeal, had one final request. He wanted to see his beloved equines one last time. The staff and his family worked to make his wish come true.

Ringo and Sugar

His family brought his horses, Ringo and Sugar, to the hospital, a 150-mile trip from their Premont home. Rosario Gonzalez said her husband opened his eyes when the horses came up to him and appeared to “actually kiss him.” He spent about an hour with Ringo and Sugar — a palomino and a dark bay — before going back to his hospital room.

Fateful day

It was on May 21, 1970 that Gonzalez received his fateful wound. Perhaps it’s not coincidence, but part of a cosmic plan, that it was on May 21, 2016 his two horses came to him to say farewell.

Final farewell

Gonzalez passed away three days later, on May 24, at the age of 65. His wife thanked the hospital staff on her Facebook page, calling them “angels” and saying they had become part of the family.

Veterans Health Administration

The VA hospital system has gotten a bad rap lately, but it is one of the world’s largest healthcare systems. It currently includes the following:

  • 152 hospitals
  • 800 community-based outpatient clinics
  • 126 nursing home care units
  • 35 domiciliaries, or supervised, home-like environments

The Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital was named after the most decorated soldier of the Second World War, who later had a career as a movie star. Murphy received every military honor for valor his country could bestow, along with five decorations presented to him by Belgium and France, including the French Legion of Honor. He starred in 44 films, many of them Westerns. Murphy was killed in an airplane crash in 1971. After the war, he pioneered efforts to have the federal government recognize and provide treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder.

The Audie L. Murphy Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center is one of just five such centers in the US, and the only one serving the Southwest. In addition to treating veterans with spinal cord injuries, such as Roberto Gonzalez, it also treats veterans suffering from limb loss, traumatic brain injury and burns.

Winston Churchill famously said that there was something about the outside of a horse that was good for the inside of a man. Roberto Gonzalez would have agreed. Although he could never again climb on a horse’s back after his war wound, he still spent his life training these magnificent creatures. As a trainer, he would know each horse intimately, its strengths and weaknesses, and whether the animal was suitable for a particular race. We can hope that he is now reunited with the horses that have gone before him.

—Jane Meggitt


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