Joe Barrera: My Motives in 1967

I have been asked my times about my reasons for fighting in Vietnam. This was especially true at Colorado College, the wonderful paradise of innocence in the early ’70s when I was a student there. My answer did not satisfy the anti-war people who made life hard for me, but this is what I would say: When I was a boy in Catholic school I would read books by Fr. Albert Nevins, the Maryknoll Catholic priest and unofficial spokesman for the Foreign Mission Society of America, as Maryknoll is formally known. Fr. Nevins was of a different time. In those innocent days of the ’50s and early ’60s America was still a light unto the world, a savior for oppressed peoples everywhere. There was truth in this and we are still a light unto the world, if we can live up to our ideals. As a young man I considered myself fortunate to be part of the effort to spread democracy and halt Communism, a sentiment reinforced by my father, a career Army man. But disillusion was inevitable. I understood later that there was also a dark, imperialistic side to U.S. foreign policy. I wasn’t the only one who realized that. As a country we learned about our own misguided decisions in the ’60s with the debacle of the Vietnam War. Vietnam drastically altered the world view of a whole generation and we have never been the same since. We behaved in less than an exemplary manner in Vietnam. One statistic is enough to bring this into focus. Over the course of our war in Southeast Asia we dropped more than 7 million tons of bombs on Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, more than twice what rained down on Europe and Asia during WWII. Imagine for a moment that you are an Asian peasant and a flight of B-52 bombers begins to carpet bomb your rice field. You run like hell, but you can’t outrun a bomb falling from 30,000 feet. I know about that. I saw it, felt it, and still live it. A 500 lb bomb from a B-52 fell right on top of my infantry company. Lucky for me I had dug a deep hole in the ground. Otherwise I would not be here today. That was some kind of “friendly fire!”

But  back in 1967 I knew nothing about this. My world view was decidedly anti-Communist, influenced by Fr. Nevins, who had written about the atrocities committed by Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh after they routed the French at Dien Bien Phu and won their struggle against colonialism, at least in North Vietnam. The French, of course, were no paragons of virtue. They committed many crimes in Vietnam and later in Algeria, where they behaved even worse. But it was the Communists in Vietnam who frightened me. I vividly remember one episode in which Vietnamese Catholics had chopsticks rammed into their ears, recounted in detail in a book by Fr. Nevins, if memory serves me right. That was enough to make me a crusader against the Reds.

So, in 1967 I joined the Army and it was off to Vietnam. Influenced by my uncle, the eternal soldier who had almost been killed during the siege of Brest in 1944, I volunteered for the infantry. He called me a fool for doing it, but I had to prove that I was as tough as he was. Well, I did, but it was mostly because of sheer dumb luck that I survived. That, and my pious mother’s prayers. I went to war completely idealistically, like countless young men before and after me. My motive was to save the world from Communism, or at least South Vietnam. Communism to me was monstrous, the equivalent of Nazism and Fascism, twin evils the Greatest Generation who fought WWII had so heroically destroyed. I emulated that Generation in 1967, and contrary to Vietnam War myth, many of my fellow soldiers felt the same way. We were virtuous in our Americanism. I believed in that. I was motivated by that kind of selflessness. And then in one turn of fortune so many of us turned bitter and cynical. The Veterans’ Affairs hospitals and clinics are full of us now, not to mention the cemeteries. But, please, remember me and all of us for who were, “We were soldiers once, and young.”

Joe Barrera, Ph.D, is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

Please Join us in Denver (FRI & SAT)

Hello, friends. Once again, we are headed to Denver this upcoming weekend for a couple of Literary Events. We hope to see you there. As always, any questions or comments, please email our Publisher, Joe Barrera at jjbarr46@gmail.com, or our Artist/Editor John Lewis at larevistaalmagre@outlook.com

GI Forum vets book event

Both locations are easily accesible from I-25.

Joe Barrera: After the Celebration

We just honored the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was the right thing to do as it is every year. But now that it’s over the time for sober reappraisals is here. Not about the holiday itself, but about our understanding of it. Did it make any real difference? Did we truly grasp its meaning? The truth for me in terms of MLK Day is “No.” This failure is true not just for the King holiday, but for almost every other commemoration meant to improve our individual and collective lives. It can be a sad catalogue.

Urban Farming

Christmas comes and goes but we don’t appreciate the descent of heaven to earth (even if we are not religious, we want to see the miracle of the season). Veterans’ Day rolls around and we are no closer to restoring a normal life to returning combat veterans, what we crave more than anything else. On Labor Day, we think that nobody works, which makes us forget the millions who work but don’t make a living wage. We congratulate ourselves because we are free, but when the 4th of July explodes, liberty and justice for all (let me repeat, “for all”) are just as evanescent as the fireworks. We decorate soldiers’ tombs on Memorial Day as we prepare for more war and more tombs. At Easter we celebrate the triumph of life over death, as the opioid epidemic, mass shootings, gun violence, and the teen suicide rate undermine our hopes. “But wait,” you say, “we are making progress on all these fronts.” True, but not good enough. Not for me. My dissatisfaction has deep roots.

In the summer of 1963 I was working at a Rio Grande Valley fruit packing shed in 100-degree heat. It was August 28, and I left work because I didn’t want to toil anymore for $1.05 an hour, which even then was not enough. I went home, turned on the little black-and-white TV and watched Rev. King deliver his “I Have a Dream Speech.” In that moment King became my hero. What this meant for me was that I expected him to very soon come and lead the oppressed Mexican Americans of south Texas into the Promised Land — democracy, civil rights, equality, non-discrimination. Just like he was doing for Black folks. King would join forces with Cesar Chavez, the fellow disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, and with Chavez save the Chicano farmworkers from the slavery of the fields. He would do all of this with God on his side.

In 1967 the farmworkers in Starr County, the poorest county in the nation, went on strike for higher wages. The growers called in the Texas Rangers, little more than hired goons at their beck and call. Ranger A.Y. Allee, the Bull Connor of south Texas, led the effort to suppress the strike. I expected Dr. King to descend on Starr County at any moment and defeat Allee with nothing but moral force. It didn’t happen, and it still hasn’t happened. I was and still am bitterly disappointed. It would have meant so much to us if he had come to Starr County. But that’s in the past. I am unhappy because the present-day guardians of his legacy have not learned what he taught. They ignore the grossest violation of human rights that we commit now, the mistreatment of refugees seeking asylum. Dr. King would not ignore that.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D, is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

Please support local art and literature, pick up our latest edition of The Almagre Review HERE.

Joe Barrera: Do We Still Have a Conscience?

This is the season when we celebrate the voice of conscience. This celebration is unique in the world, and springs from our spiritual inheritance. As we understand our history, we were founded by people of conscience, dissenters who fled the oppression of church and state in order to remain faithful to their beliefs. We honor this inheritance of freedom of conscience. It has a name. We call it American Exceptionalism. We feel that it makes us better than other nations. The vision has faded but so powerful is the legacy that there is still a memory of it, still a twinge of conscience which prods us to pay homage to our founding ideals. Heroes of conscience continue to spring up in this country. They are Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature,” born to fight the dark forces of fear and discord. We are perpetually torn between conscience, the insistent voice of reason and light, and the devil of fear, which for us always takes the form of racism and xenophobia. It is the eternal war in our souls. The battle manifests in our belief that our purpose in the world is to be “a light unto the nations.” To be this light is to bear a heavy burden, which we carry willingly. But it can be self-destructive. We are torn by repeated struggles, the endless cycles of progression and regression in our history. These occur when we perceive to have either succeeded or failed in our mission of enlightenment. At the moment we have failed. We are caught up in the cycle of regression. We are moving backward.

Martin Luther King

In their latest visitation, progression and regression have been ferociously fighting since the 1960s. The ebb and flow is ceaseless. The decisive battle has not yet been fought. In the titanic struggle a better angel appeared. The darkness killed him, but his life continues. Because of him we know that regression will give way to progression. The hero said this about conscience: “Cowardice asks the question, Is It Safe? Expediency asks the question, Is It Politic? And Vanity comes along and asks the question, Is It Popular? But Conscience asks the question, Is It Right? The Ultimate Measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience, but where he stands in moments of challenge, moments of great crisis and controversy.”

This would be one more moment of great crisis for him. If he were alive today he would be down on the Mexican border, rescuing the 13,000 children torn from their parents’ arms by the U.S. government and caged like animals. “We are responsible for that atrocity,” he would say to us. “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.” He would condemn the racism he knew so well, still directed against his own people, and at the same time non-violently lie down and stop the latter-day slave ships, the dangerously overcrowded vans ferrying desperate immigrants to slave-like jobs. He would stand in front of the wall of shame and intone, “Tear down this wall!” He would fearlessly defend the asylum seekers, reminding us that we have laws granting them the right to seek refuge in the land of the free. He would call all of us, Whites, African Americans, Latinos/Chicanos, to stand with him in conscience. And we would respond, knowing that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is not just a hero for Black folks but for everyone of us.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

Issue 6: Submission Deadline

This is a quick update to anyone who might like to contribute to our sixth edition, the “Veterans Issue,” which is scheduled for winter.  We’d like to have all material in by October 25th. In past issues, we have reached out to writers locally and all over the world, but in this particular edition, we hope to really focus in on our Colorado community and those along the front range.

AR monogram H

We are looking for stories — fiction, essays, memoirs, poems — from those who have served. While it might sound like we are interested only in the military experience, we recognize that veterans are not only soldiers, but members of our community in every capacity. If one has served, she or he may send us a piece about their military experience…or anything else under the sun. And, if you are not a veteran, we still invite you to share, so long as the piece is relevant to the veteran experience. Many civilians are involved with veterans, are married to them, or are raised by them. Please continue to send us the high quality work we have been so generously provided now for two years.

We hope this clears the way a bit, and look forward to carefully considering each piece. If not, feel free to tug our sleeve with a question or two.

With Gratitude,
The Almagre Staff

Joe Barrera: Comanches in Downtown Colorado Springs

During Hispanic Heritage Month we honor the true history of this region. This year marks the 239th anniversary of an event that occurred in what is now downtown Colorado Springs. In 1779, don Juan Bautista de Anza, the Spanish colonial governor of New Mexico, came down Ute Pass with 800 soldiers, militia, and Ute and Apache Indian allies. They were in search of the feared Comanche chief, Cuerno Verde, so called because he wore a buffalo headdress with the horns colored green. Cuerno Verde had been terrorizing the isolated colony of New Mexico on the northern frontier of New Spain. So deadly were his raids and so ineffective the response from the decaying Spanish empire that New Mexico was in mortal danger. But then Anza was appointed governor. His task was to destroy the Comanche menace and restore peace to the colony.

Anza was not a Spaniard, but a Creole, born in Sonora. Creoles ranked second in the social hierarchy of New Spain. Above them were peninsular Spaniards, who were the general officers. Below the Creoles were the mestizos, those who were a mixture of Indian and European. Further down were full-blooded Indians and Africans. In this racial caste system, Anza was considered “white” but he could not ascend into the higher ranks of the Army in spite of his proven ability as a soldier. “Los gachupines,” the Spaniards, kept him forever a lieutenant colonel. But they needed him. In 1776 he led an expedition from Sonora across the Mojave Desert and up the California coast and founded San Francisco. This was the first time that Spaniards and Mexicans had crossed the waterless desert into California. Anza did it in record time, with a large party that included women and children, and without loss of life.

To understand Anza we need to know some history. The Spanish frontier was unlike the Anglo American frontier. It was a static frontier that did not advance, like the Anglo frontier. Native Americans lost their lands on the Anglo frontier. On the Hispanic frontier Indians and Mexicans lived side by side. On August 15, 1779, Anza left Santa Fe with an army made up of Spaniards, Creoles, mestizos, Indians, and Africans, people now known as Mexicans, and marched northward into what is now Colorado. He wanted to go up the San Luis Valley, through South Park, down Ute Pass, and catch the Comanches in their usual hunting grounds, the plains east of the Front Range. The New Mexican “vecinos,” the settlers, were familiar with this vast area. They had been hunting and grazing sheep here for generations. “Los vecinos” guided the expedition down Ute Pass, and on August 31, 1779, Anza and his troops attacked a Comanche camp at the confluence of Fountain and Monument Creeks. They had surprised the Comanches, just as Anza intended. They chased the Indians for miles, down through what is now Pueblo, all the way to the foothills of Greenhorn Peak. It was near this mountain, named after the Comanche Chief, that on September 3, 1779, Anza met and defeated Cuerno Verde. It was a huge victory. Anza had saved New Mexico and perpetuated the eternal presence of Indo-Hispano people in this region.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

FB Banner (Almagre Review)

Joe Barrera: Remembering the Mini-Tet Offensive

MVCD Button

Memorial Day is about memories. With this in mind, I visited Joe Berg, the director of the 4th Infantry Division Museum at Fort Carson. There is a soft spot in my heart for the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry, 4th Division, with whom I served in Vietnam. I asked Joe about Mini-Tet and the 4th Division. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong Tet Offensive, Phase One, of January and February 1968, is well-known. Not so the Tet Offensive, Phase Two, in May 1968. We called Phase Two Mini-Tet, because it had all the ferocity of Big Tet. The 4th Infantry Division whose Area of Operations (AO) was the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, was particularly hard hit. In late May 1968 I was with 1/8th Infantry in the mountainous tri-border area of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. I asked Joe Berg what the historical record says about 1/8th Infantry and the 4th Division in the battles we fought there.

I knew the answer already but I wanted confirmation. The record is very skimpy. The 4th Division is a good outfit. In WWI, the division distinguished itself during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Pershing’s sledgehammer attacks on the Hindenburg Line. In WWII, the 8th Regiment, my old unit, spearheaded the 4th Division’s D-Day landings and was the first to secure its beach head, Utah Beach. But in Vietnam we never got the credit we deserved. The battle cry of the division is “Steadfast and Loyal,” and that it has always been. But in the Nam it was other units–the 1st Cavalry, the 173rd Airborne, the Marines at Khe Sanh–who got all the attention. Joe Berg showed me Erik B. Villard’s book, Staying the Course: October 1967 to September 1968–the U.S. Army in Vietnam. Villard devotes about two pages to the 4th Division’s battles in the tri-border area. There is a brief mention of 1/8th Infantry’s fight with the North Vietnamese (NVA) 95C and 101D regiments at Firebase 29 on Hill 824 and other nearby firebases near the Montagnard village of Ben Het. Villard has a lot of ground to cover, so the brevity is understandable. But I wish it wasn’t so.

I was on one of those hilltop firebases whose name I do not remember. At first we were glad to be on the firebase, relieved from humping the 75lb rucksacks we carried. But that didn’t last long.The enemy kept up a constant mortar and artillery barrage. Day and night mortar rounds fell like rain. We were a shooting gallery for 75mm recoilless rifles from adjacent hilltops. Then the two-week-long barrage by Russian-supplied 152mm NVA artillery out of Laos just five clicks (kilometers) away. Those were big rounds, coming in with a horrible shriek. The NVA gunners aimed for the U.S. artillery batteries on the hilltop. We lived like moles in trenches and deep bunkers. We couldn’t patrol outside the wire. They had us surrounded and to venture out was to risk a deadly ambush. Resupply helicopters came in at their own peril. We suffered like the Marines besieged at Khe Sanh. Not as long, but the same kind of thing.

The spirit words on the 8th Regiment’s coat-of-arms are Patriae Fidelitas–Faithfulness to Country. I ran by the  tactical operations center, the TOC, one night and tripped on something. It was the battalion placard, blown down by one of those huge 152 artillery rounds. In the glare of an explosion I saw the Latin, Patriae Fidelitas. The sentiment is powerful. Roman soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall, guarding the empire’s remotest frontier, must have felt it too. Now the 8th Infantry held a 20th-century frontier. I propped up the sign against the sandbags and ran to the safety of my own deep bunker.

 

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.