Joe Barrera: Home, But Yet Not at Home

MVCD Button

We were on the big jet but then they told us to get off. Quickly, we filed out of the plane and sheltered in the revetment next to the runway. The Viet Cong mortars landed some distance away. Our plane was not touched. We ran up the stairs of the Freedom Bird and took our seats again. The pilots gunned the engines and we were airborne. The men cheered when the wheels left the ground. I sat in my seat silently. My tour of duty was over but I felt a strange emotion: I felt sad—I wanted to stay in Vietnam. I wanted to keep on fighting the war. For me it was not finished. I had come up against the wall, what every combat infantryman faces. I had stood there, pushed against that wall and overcome my fear, I had done my duty. But I had not done enough. I had not gone through the wall. Yes, I had stepped into it but I had not gone far enough into the other side. I had not finished my war. I had not been true to fallen comrades.The other soldiers didn’t see it that way. They were just glad to go back to “the world” but I felt differently. “There must be something very wrong with me because I am not happy.”

In Japan there was a layover. We went to the PX to buy duty-free cameras, radios, and, of course, liquor. The place was full of Marines on their way to Nam. Their uniforms were brand new, their buzz cuts very tight, their faces so young and innocent. “You’ll be sorry,” the other guys said to the youngsters.

It’s been fifty-years but how fresh the memories. We landed at Travis Air Base, late at night, the end of August, 1968. We cleared Customs, dumping the Cambodian Red and other contraband in the amnesty bins. Then they took us to a big warehouse and made us take showers. After that we filed down a row of tables and senior NCO’s dressed us in new Class A uniforms. They had to help us put on the Army insignia, lining it up properly. We didn’t remember how to do that but nobody cared. The sergeants offered us the obligatory steak dinner. I was hungry and wanted it. But all the others loudly refused. Then buses pulled up and we were on our way to the Oakland airport. By this time the sun was up. How different “the world” looked.

In those days you could walk up to any airline counter in any airport and pay cash for a one-way ticket and nobody took you for a terrorist. I paid $80.00 for a ticket to San Antonio. Finally, it started to sink in. I was going home. In the waiting area people were sitting in what looked like school desks, the fronts fitted with single curved arms. At the ends of the arms were small black-and-white televisions. You could put a quarter in a slot and get 15 minutes of TV time. Everybody was staring intently at the TVs. I stood behind one man and looked over his shoulder. Just then on the screen I saw a policeman in a white helmet with a raised club chasing a “hippie,” catching the long-haired young man and beating him mercilessly with the stick. It was a shock. I didn’t know what to think. The violence sucked me in. I didn’t want to but I was compelled to see it. The riot on TV was the scene outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. “My God,” I thought, “I’ve been gone a year and the country is falling to pieces.”

Nobody in the airport talked to me. I was a soldier in uniform and I was invisible. I may as well not have existed. People looked right through me. Later on I realized something. The myth of spit and words in airports was invented by Vietnam veterans to deal with the deep wounds our countrymen gave us. Better to get spit on than to be completely shunned.

The small San Antonio terminal was full of people. I saw a tall soldier in Army green standing in a corner. Around his neck he wore the unmistakable broad blue ribbon of the Medal of Honor. Three or four other soldiers stood around him. The crown ignored them. I joined the soldiers. The man with the medal told us how he had saved the lives of other men in one of those forgotten Vietnam firefights, so bravely won but so uselessly fought. The profile of the ancient Greek warrior on the medal seemed to approve. The word “Valor” was inscribed above the face of the warrior. I turned away, looking for home. My fellow citizens ceaselessly rushed past me, past the tall soldier wearing his nation’s highest award for honor, for courage and devotion. Nobody stopped, nobody cared.

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

Joe Barrera: On Veterans’ Day: A Tribute to the Valiant

MVCD Button

The ethnic group who won the largest number of Medals of Honor per capita in World War II was the Mexican/Chicano group. This trend continued in subsequent wars. Our city has a connection to a Medal of Honor winner.  He was in the Army Special Forces, the Green Berets, famously promoted by the assassinated John F. Kennedy, whose words, “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country” have power still.  In the years after Kennedy, the Green Berets were the Americans who asked, “What can we do for our country?” The soldier knew the answer to that question and acted on it. Now there’s a park in Colorado Springs named for him. It’s in the southeast part of town, home to many of his Mexican, Chicano, Latino, Hispanic brethren. It’s been a while since I went there. Maybe it’s time to go back, time to visit Master Sergeant Roy P. Benavidez Park and remember a hero.

Benavidez medals

Roy Benavidez started life as the son of migrant farm workers in south Texas. Like so many other Mexican Americans he saw the Army as a way out of poverty. He found the American dream, and much more, in the Army. He paid a high price for it, overcoming anti-Mexican racism in Texas, but he was always proud to serve his country. During his first tour in Vietnam, he was severely wounded when he stepped on a land mine. He spent six months in the hospital recovering. Then it was back to Vietnam. On May 2, 1968, west of Loc Ninh, a Special Forces Recon unit was inserted into an area controlled by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). They were soon surrounded by the NVA and taking casualties. Roy volunteered to help extract this unit. In an LZ overrun with the enemy, with burning helicopters and dead men all around, he was wounded thirty-seven times, was nearly KIA, but, incredibly, survived. For saving most of the Recon team he was awarded the Medal of Honor, but not until 1981.

It’s good to honor heroes, especially those who like Benavidez suffer rejection but go on to prove their love of country. It’s good to do it because white Americans need to recognize two things: 1) Hispanic valor, and, 2) that Chicanos/Latinos clearly understand the great worth of this country and the freedoms it affords. When I was a combat infantryman in Vietnam most of the Hispanics in my company were men with deep roots in this country, people like me, whose ancestors were in south Texas at least 100-years before the Anglo Americans arrived. But there were “illegal aliens,” too. These were men who had crossed the border illegally for the express purpose of fighting for the United States. They loved the United States. In the Vietnam days Army recruiters could get illegals into the Army, where the majority ended up in the infantry. I hope that those guys all became U.S. citizens, but if not, will they be deported? I’m thinking of the Colorado Springs Valenzuela brothers, two Vietnam veterans who were deported to Mexico.

I have written about my uncle, Reynaldo V. Zuniga, and his exploits with the 23rd Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, during WWII. He was badly wounded during the siege of Brest and nearly died. I grew up hearing his war stories. He had a big influence on me. One of his Army friends, Jose M. Lopez, also was a big influence on me. Not that Jose Lopez told stories. He was a very quiet man. It was my uncle who would tell the stories about Jose, who probably killed more enemy than Audie Murphy, or at least as many. On December 17, 1944, near Krinkeldt, Belgium, Jose M. Lopez killed 132 Germans with his light .50 machinegun. His actions saved the 23rd Regiment from annihilation in the German onslaught known as the Battle of the Bulge and earned him the MOH.

There’s a street in Pueblo, the Latino city, named after Joe P. Martinez. Joe fought with the 7th Infantry Division in the Aleutians campaign, and won the Medal of Honor in that almost forgotten operation. On May 23, 1943 Joe was killed on the island of Attu, leading the 32nd Infantry Regiment up the Holtz-Chichagof Pass against the entrenched Japanese. Pueblo is rightly called the City of Heroes in honor of Joe Martinez and others like him.

This year marks the 100th birthday of the 4th Infantry Division. The 4th Division is based at Fort Carson and in telling the history of the Division the post historian wrote about the Famous Fourth’s 1944 battle in the Huertgen Forest. He mentioned Macario Garcia, a soldier with the 22nd Regiment, who won the MOH for destroying three machinegun nests and killing six Germans. That was one battle he fought, but there was another one which is never mentioned in the citations. When Macario came home to Sugarland, Texas after the war he went out one day dressed in the uniform of his country’s Army, wearing the big blue ribbon and the Medal of honor around his neck. He sat down to eat at a restaurant. The white owner didn’t serve Mexicans and threw him out. Macario performed home front heroics and slugged the man. White soldiers and sailors rallied to Macario’s defense and soon there was a full-fledged brawl. That battle has now been won, paid for with the same blood shed on the battlefields. And that’s why Latinos fight, to win the rights they deserve as first-class citizens.

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

Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

MVCD Button
I have been watching The Vietnam War on PBS, the nation’s largest TV network. The program is billed as one of the best film documentaries about our misadventure in Southeast Asia. I agree that it’s a good one, but I have my reservations. It seems that I always find things that are wrong, or at least not accurate, about the Ken Burns effort and others like it. When I read books or news stories about Vietnam, watch old TV news clips, or see contemporary documentaries and movies, I cannot help but feel that we are not told the honest truth. Vietnam was never truthfully explained when Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon were in the White House. This is still the case even if the latest offering is good history, exposing the lies and miscalculations on the political and military levels that got us into Vietnam. The documentary does a good job of that. We see the duplicity of our government, the bloody tragedy that resulted and the bitter wounds of division, not yet healed, that the war and the betrayal by our government, caused at home. Many are now saying, “I didn’t know the history.” But I am concerned about other things.

I am a combat veteran of the Vietnam War. I did my duty as a soldier. But my experience puts me in a small category of Vietnam veterans. I did not want it, but I am numbered among the few who actually fought. This affects my vision. Once an infantryman, always an infantryman. This means that I am unforgiving when civilians attempt to explain my war. This is common among combat veterans. We love our wars. Yes, in our hearts we love them, for most of us an embarrassing secret, hard to explain. We are sensitive about this and sincerely try to tell our fellow citizens that we and our wars have been distorted by well-intentioned people. But it never seems to make a difference. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick do not understand my war and this love. In spite of their interviews with combat veterans, they manage to distort the Vietnam combat experience. Since this film started I have been telling people that it is distorted. All I get is doubtful looks and pitying stares.

Almost every U.S. veteran war story told in the documentary is a tragic one: Ambushes and human wave attacks. Platoons, companies, battalions overrun. Horrendous casualties. The story of innocent young men like Mogie Crocker, KIA in 1966, woven throughout the entire series, told by his mother and sister who can barely contain their grief fifty-one-years later. The starving POWs, reduced to killing and eating cats. John McCain, with two broken arms and a broken leg, tortured by his captors. The 7th Cavalry, decimated in the Ia Drang Valley. The 173rd Airborne Brigade and the arrogance of their commander, who let three companies suffer near annihilation on Hill 875. Only the Marine, Karl Marlantes, tells a heroic story of taking a hill and killing the North Vietnamese. But there was much glory for us, if you can accept that  there is glory in war. I wish the story of my battalion, 1/8th Infantry, 4th Infantry Division, had been told. In May of 1968 we fought and destroyed two regiments of NVA five klicks (kilometers) from the Laotian border during “Mini-Tet. What about the barrage of 152 millimeter Russian artillery that we endured for weeks during that battle? Now, there’s a story.

Losses happened. Many firefights ended inconclusively. The enemy was brave, just as brave or braver than we were. It was a war of attrition. But the fighting men never lost a battle. We lost the war, but that was no fault of ours. In their eagerness to tell the pathos of the war, accented by the maudlin lyrics and whine of Bob Dylan, Burns and Novick paint a picture of U.S. victims of the war. They make us out to be victims. It is true that the draftees didn’t want to be in “the Nam,” but the conscripts fought as bravely as soldiers in any other war. This is said by some of those interviewed but it is lost in the general narrative.

In contrast, the VC and NVA narratives ring with righteousness and heroism. Our men don’t smile for the camera. We see more than one stereotypical GI weeping veteran. The VC and NVA veterans look happy. Of course, they won, so they should look happy. U.S. film footage that Burns and Novick show is all real–we see bloodied American corpses. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) footage is obviously Communist propaganda, staged scenes of the victorious People’s Army of Vietnam, the PAVN, as they called themselves. No dead NVA in their films. That is the first thing that seized me when I saw the first episode. I asked myself, “don’t Burns and Novick realize that they are showing Communist propaganda?” They interview an NVA cadre in his dress uniform. The man looks much too young to be a veteran of a war fifty-years ago. No Americans are interviewed in dress uniforms and they are all old men.

There is one more bone to pick. Burns and Novick almost completely ignore the presence of Hispanic soldiers. Only Everett Alvarez, the longest-held POW in Hanoi, is interviewed. If not for that dubious distinction I feel that Alvarez would not appear in the documentary. It’s a pattern. Burns was forced to add an episode about Hispanic soldiers to his WWII documentary after the American GI Forum, a Hispanic veterans’ organization, threatened a boycott in 2007. He had completely left out the role of 500,000 Hispanic soldiers in WWII.  Burns should take another look at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. It is the only public monument in which Hispanic valor is faithfully honored. Thousands of Spanish names are engraved on that Wall, written and paid for in blood.

Joe Barrera,
Publisher
AR monogram K

Los Dias de los Muertos – The Days of the Dead

MVCD Button
We are in the autumn of the year. Another year falling down to die in December. We roll past All Saints and All Souls, remembering Heaven and Purgatory, the days of the dead, los Dias de los Muertos, as we say in Spanish.

Autumn is like that, bringing remembrances of the dead. But memory is strange. Instead of dying, memories come to life, more real than the people and events from which they spring. My memories are of the Vietnam War, rapidly receding into the distant past, and of the soldiers who populate those memories. Soldiers appear, stand and speak. They come to petition, to ask for my favor.

Sometimes I cannot answer them. They are too insistent, wanting to hold me accountable lest I forget them. The dead of the Vietnam War, like the dead of all wars, wish only to be remembered. But the Vietnam dead have a special poignancy about them. They do not want to be consigned to the gray world of shameful memories, even if their war is often perceived that way.

So I am patient with them. And I am patient with myself. Before I had Vietnam memories, I had other memories, the World War II stories that I heard growing up. I came home from the Vietnam War in 1968, in the autumn of the year. I came home to south Texas. I was a combat veteran, home from the war, but yet not home, unable to return to the civilian world, as combat veterans often cannot.

But it was a good homecoming. My uncle was there to greet me. He was an old soldier. He had landed with the Second Infantry Division on D+1, June 7, 1944. Reynaldo V. Zuniga, that was my uncle’s name. When I think of my war I always think of him. I remember the stories he would tell.

My uncle would sit with his cronies, among them another combat veteran named Ray Hernandez, who had been with the 36th Division, the Texas National Guard outfit savagely mauled by the Germans at the Gari river in Italy and finally at Monte Cassino. There was another man, a small, quiet, dark-skinned man. This man’s name was Jose Lopez. He would come to visit relatives in Brownsville, then stop to visit my uncle before returning to San Antonio. They had been in the same regiment during the war, Jose Lopez in M Company.

In December 1944 he killed 132 Germans in and around the Belgian village of Krinkeldt. He shot them down with his .30 caliber machine gun. He was alone. His comrades had fled in the face of the German onslaught. For that action during the Battle of the Bulge Jose Lopez won the Medal of Honor.

The stories would usually start on D-Day. That was my uncle’s glory. He jumped off the ramp of the LCI, into water that nearly covered his head. “I held up the man next to me,” he would say. “I’m six feet-two, so I saved him from drowning. And the Germans were still shooting at us.”

He was seventeen when he ran away from home in 1940 together with his best friend, Ernesto Vela. The boys hitchhiked to San Antonio and joined the Army’s Second Infantry Division, the famous Indian Head division. The profile of the stoical Indian warrior is the proud insignia of the Second Division, a fitting symbol for the many south Texas Mexican Americans who fought, bled and died in that combat division in World War II.

Ernesto was killed in Normandy. He lies in the American cemetery at Colville-sur-Mer, overlooking Bloody Omaha, the beach where so many men died. My uncle still talked about him many years later, and I would listen, listen so much that I felt that I knew Ernesto, that he was my comrade, too.

He was rapidly promoted and was very soon an NCO, the platoon sergeant, even if he was a hard drinker and a hard brawler, ready with his fists and even more ready with his sarcasm. But he had leadership qualities. I remember that he was a natural leader and I certainly wanted to follow him.

My uncle lasted three months in combat. He was wounded three times. The last wound was almost fatal. It was in September, 1944. The U.S. Second Infantry Division was now part of Patton’s newly activated Third Army, tasked with clearing the Germans out of the Brittany peninsula and liberating the port city of Brest.

Reynaldo Zuniga was a platoon sergeant in I Company, 3rd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment. He led from the front, always from the front. He was that kind of man. He ran out in front of his men, and I can hear him shout, “follow me!” It was at the siege of Brest.

Then he was shot. A German soldier hiding behind a wall shot him with a K98 Mauser rifle, the 7.92 mm  slug shattering his pelvis. He lay on the ground, “and the blood was pouring out of me like water from a faucet,” he would say. The platoon medic ran out, oblivious to danger, slapped a pressure bandage on him and pulled him to safety. “The Germans were so close that I could hear them talking, but they didn’t shoot the medic and they didn’t shoot me again.” I can still hear him say that, paying a grudging compliment to the enemy who had nearly killed him but then chose to spare him.

On Veterans’ Day I drank a toast to him. I went to my war because I wanted to be like him. But of course I never could ascend to that lofty height. We old soldiers continue to fight our wars. It’s a type of relief to tell stories, especially among the bands of brothers found in every VFW and American Legion post across the land.  I have done that, and gone on pilgrimages looking for solace.

When I visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington – The Wall – I tried to put mine to rest. I touched the names of comrades engraved there. It’s a powerful experience and it’s no accident that the Memorial to the Vietnam War dead is a wall – we, the survivors – are still trying to go through our own wall. We want to finish our war and reunite with our comrades. It’s tragic that so many Vietnam veterans cannot do that.

When I went to the Wall I think that I succeeded, at least to a small degree, in putting my war to rest. Touching their names gave me a fleeting connection to those long-dead comrades.

But there was another bond that I found there. It made me feel another strong emotion. The Wall has one unique feature that I immediately noticed. No where else, on no other American monument, civilian or military, are there so many Spanish surnames. On every panel there are Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central American names. Thousands of them.

The Vietnam War Memorial is an ironic testament to affirmative action. That Roll of Honor is the only place where our country gives Latinos the recognition we so richly deserve – because it was paid for in blood.

~Joe Barrera,
Publisher/Editor
The Almagre Review

business-card-monogram