Morgan Hill resident Roger Martarano, a Vietnam veteran who still suffers from multiple battle injuries, was literally speechless when his friends and neighbors unveiled a gift they built to make it easier and safer for him to enjoy. of his radio-controlled airplane hobby.
Martarano, a retired nurse, is a member of the Santa Clara County Model Aircraft Skypark Tomcats, a nonprofit club of R/C aircraft enthusiasts who love their hobby at Coyote Valley Airfield, just north of Morgan Hill. He joined the club and later became hooked on radio-controlled airplanes shortly after moving to Morgan Hill in 2010, when his new neighbor and longtime Tomcats member Tom Ciccone encouraged him to get involved.
Martarano, now 74, has quickly settled in with his new group of best friends, both in his south-west cul-de-sac of Morgan Hill and at the airfield that attracts fans from across the country. bay area. Years later, John Bagnatori moved into the neighborhood in 2019 and was welcomed into the Tomcats by Martarano, Ciccone and others.
But also over the years, Martarano has had increasing mobility issues due to complications from injuries he sustained in an ambush in Vietnam in 1968. While he is still able to walk, his left knee is completely fused so he can’t bend his leg, and several months ago he had right knee replacement surgery. In fact, he’s had 22 surgeries since the 1968 combat ambush and continued “secondary issues” from his initial injuries, he said.
“Over the years it got harder and harder” to walk, Martarano said. “I have to be really sure of myself.”
The Coyote Valley Airfield, which is owned by the county’s Parks and Recreation Department, is not built for users with mobility issues, Ciccone explained. Two wooden stands designed to hold an R/C plane in place while a member fuels up and starts their plane are old and “falling apart”. And to get from those pits, or benches, to the paved taxiway, a pilot must carry his plane and his radio while walking through uneven patches of dirt.
Additionally, the dirt surface is home to ground squirrels, which have created large holes that pose a significant tripping hazard, Ciccone said. Thus, Martarano’s friends were always nervous watching him carry his plane across the airfield.
“The odds of him falling, it was only a matter of time,” Ciccone said. Not only could the impact of a fall cause injury, but the fast-spinning propeller of the gas-powered aircraft poses an additional hazard if left unchecked.
So Ciccone, Bagnatori and two other Tomcats members, Matt Campi and Brian Lane, wanted to do something to make the park safer for their friend and neighbor. They put their heads and backs together and decided to build a new bench for Martarano. Bagnatori and Ciccone found detailed plans and built the bench in their home, keeping it a secret from their neighbor, Martarano.
They also determined that they needed a new, safe surface to place the bench in the park and decided to install a new 10-foot-by-10-foot, four-inch-deep reinforced concrete slab adjacent to the pathway. traffic. This way, Martarano wouldn’t have to walk on uneven grass or dirt while handling his plane.
Campi and Lane, the latter using his tractor, helped pour the concrete and install the new bench. A plaque on the bench reads: “Dedicated to our friend Roger Martarano. Served in the US Army. A hero of the Vietnam War.
The friends completed the project at their own expense and unveiled the new bench to Martarano when he showed up for his weekly trip to the airfield on February 28.
Ciccone noted that the bench is available to everyone at the R/C plane park, but “especially our friend Roger.”
“None of us are concrete people or professional entrepreneurs – we’re just regular guys and we do something for a friend in the club, and we did it,” Ciccone said.
The secret of the four friends was successful, as Martarano was choked with surprise and gratitude, as seen in a video of the unveiling filmed by Ciccone.
“Just the fact that these guys did this for me and the club, I’m really amazed,” Martarano said in a recent interview with Ciccone. “I just don’t know how to say thank you.”
Martarano was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1967. He served in the infantry as a field medic and fought in the field in Vietnam in 1968.
On April 17, 1968, Martarano and his division were attacked in what is known in the history books as the “Horseshoe Ambush,” he said. “There were a lot of casualties, a lot of injuries,” Martarano said.
Immediately after the attack, Martarano saw one of his comrades collapse in front of him and fell on his body to shield him from enemy fire, he recalled. Before Martarano realized his comrade had been fatally shot, he was shot in the hand and then in both legs. At one point during the attack, “a grenade exploded and I was hit in the chest and neck,” Martarano said. “I was able to survive. I more or less died there and came back.
Minutes later, Martarano was airlifted out of the combat zone in a US medevac helicopter just in time to receive life-saving emergency treatment. He was in and out of hospitals for most of the next 16 months, undergoing surgeries and other treatments.
Martarano later received a Bronze Star for his bravery in the Horseshoe Ambush.
After returning to California from overseas service, Martarano pursued a career in the medical field, primarily as a nurse and surgical assistant.
Many years after Vietnam, Martarano located the doctor who saved his life, Ken Blakely, who was living in Redding at the time. The two became friends and visited each other several times over the years. Blakely died in late 2021, Martarano said.
Ciccone and his friends said that one of the most valuable benefits of the Tomcats club is the camaraderie between members, who share their knowledge and expertise in the complexities of building and flying R/C airplanes, which led to strong bonds of friendship.
“What’s really great is the experience of the riders there and their willingness to help someone who has a problem,” Martarano said.
There are hundreds of dues-paying members of the Tomcats, who fund all maintenance, upgrades and supplies for the public airfield, Ciccone explained. People of all ages have been seen flying R/C planes around the park.
In the past, the club has held fundraising air shows and other events that have drawn thousands of spectators, but the road to the park was washed out several years ago, limiting access. The park is still accessible to club members via a service road, or to pedestrians and cyclists along the Coyote Valley Trail.
Despite the road damage, Ciccone encourages everyone to visit the airfield and learn about R/C planes.
Other club members were so impressed with the new bench and concrete surface installed by Martarano’s friends that they were asked to make two more to replace the deteriorating ones.
“It’s a community club that everyone is welcome to join, regardless of age,” Ciccone said. “It’s also a social club and we’re friends.”
For more information on Santa Clara County R/C Airfield and the Tomcats Club, visit sccmas.org.