My Vietnam Story
By Albert Hernandez, Navy
Writing Type: Prose
By Albert Hernandez
I was born in March of 1946. I came from Mexico with my mom and a younger brother. My mother was a widow. My biological father was a politician and was assassinated. Life for a widow in Mexico was really hard in those days. My mother wanted a better life for us, so we came to America and settled in El Paso, Texas. I became an American citizen in 1969, after Vietnam.
I graduated from Jefferson High School in El Paso in May of 1965. After graduation, I visited my grandparents in Casas Grandes, Mexico, where I was born. I was having a great time celebrating my graduation until my mother sent a telegraph telling me to get home as soon as possible. When I got home, there was a letter waiting for me, telling me to report to the reception station downtown for my physical. I was on the verge of being drafted. Immediately I went to the Navy recruiting office. The recruiting officer said not to worry; they would take me in right away. They signed me up. Whew! I did not want to get drafted. I was officially enlisted in the U. S. Navy in late June of 1965.
I reported to boot camp and underwent 12 weeks of training. In those days Navy boot camp was brutal. During the last week of boot camp we saw our assignments. I was to report to Navy Hospital Corps School in San Diego. I was going to be a Navy Hospital Corpsman (medic). It was 16 weeks of intensive study and training in medicine and patient care. It was an experience that would shape my future in health care.
After Hospital Corps School I was assigned to the Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego. I worked on the wards for six months. I worked all three shifts. I know what hospital work is like. It's not easy.
Then came the shocker. I was "drafted" to the Fleet Marine Force (FMF). In October 1966 I reported to the Field Medical Service School in Camp Pendleton, Ca., to be trained as a combat medic. Navy corpsmen serve as medics for the Marines. We didn't know that. The Marines trained us hard, got us in top physical shape. It was six weeks of grueling training. We were on our way to war! A Marine trainer told us that the only thing tougher than an FMF corpsman was a Navy Seal. Wow! A Marine told us that. I believed it.
After that, we got five days of leave to say goodbye to our families. I remember wearing my Marine dress greens. My dad was confused and said, "I thought you joined the Navy." I had to explain to him. My dad was really my stepfather. My mom met him in El Paso when he was in the Air Force. He was a veteran of World War II and Korea. He knew and understood where I was going, and why. He passed away in 1997. My mom passed in 2008. I miss them dearly.
I deployed to Vietnam in December of 1966. It was a very bleak time for me and my family. My mother and a small brother of mine saw me off at the airport. My mother could not stop crying. She gave me the blessing of the Cross on my forehead. I boarded the plane at Travis Air Force Base in the San Francisco Bay Area bound for Hawaii. From Hawaii, I took a C-130 military transport to Okinawa, then on to Vietnam. From Camp Pendleton to Vietnam, it was a lonely journey going to war.
I arrived in Da Nang on a cold and rainy December night. They gave me a sandwich and drink for the night and a bunk to sleep on. Next morning, I along with several others were flown in a Chinook chopper from Da Nang to Phu Bai, my home combat base. It was not too far from the DMZ. I reported to the processing area where I was fitted with combat gear, my medical bag, and a .45 caliber pistol with five clips. In Vietnam corpsmen were authorized to carry a weapon but only for self-defense. That's how bad it was even for combat medics.
I was then trucked to my company, which was about 10 miles from Phu Bai, up on some hill. I reported to the senior corpsman. My medical bag was filled with pills, needles, syringes, wound dressings and other medical items. I was assigned to the second platoon of Hotel Company. I was immediately introduced to some hard-core Marines and the other platoon corpsman. They didn't waste any time. I went on my first patrol that night.
I was really scared. It was pitch dark, and you couldn't see where you were going. Somehow, the squad leader led the way. We heard a firefight. We waited our turn, but nothing happened. The next morning, we saw what had happened. Another squad ran into a pack of Viet Cong (VC). I got my first glance of war. VC bodies were lying on the side of a road. It was a gruesome sight. Reality set in. I was in war. Now I was shook up. I won't make it, I thought. This could have been us. I prayed that day. Every night I would say a prayer. Every night.
I will not bore you with a bunch of war stories or details, but there is a particular experience of mine that I need to tell. We were on a company patrol one day and I got sick. The senior corpsman couldn't spare anyone to take me to the nearest camp that was about three miles away by road and railroad tracks. I was told to follow the tracks that would lead me to an Army outfit. I walked the tracks alone. I kept thinking what would happen to me if the enemy spotted me. I was scared. Every step I took was in fear. I would be no match for the enemy. When I got to the Army camp, they were amazed that I had walked that distance all by myself and that no one spotted me. I have to believe the hand of God was over me. My guardian angel was with me. I was not alone. I was given food and shelter by the Army guys and trucked to Phu Bai the next day.
There were many close calls, and there were days when I was sure I would not make it. I was in over 100 patrols and three major operations. In the last operation, my company got hit really hard. We were ambushed by a North Vietnamese Army outfit. These were highly trained troops. The other corpsman in my platoon was severely wounded. I heard he died later. Every other corpsman in the company got hit. The senior corpsman was killed instantly along with the company commander. The platoon officer, a young Marine lieutenant, was also killed. Only about 20 guys were left of my company, I was later told. I was the only corpsman alive and unwounded.
The reason I am alive today is because I was pulled from my company to another company that was retreating and had no corpsmen left. Only about 40 guys were left of that company, but they a needed a corpsman because there were some that required medical attention. I think about this quite often because I remember how upset I got when I got pulled from my company. Out of eight corpsmen, I was the one chosen to transfer to another company. The next morning at about 6 a.m. we heard what sounded like a firefight. One of the guys from the retreating company I was assigned to said, "That's your company being hit, doc." He was right. The firefight lasted about an hour. We saw medivac choppers flying into the area, picking up the dead and wounded. Huey choppers provided cover. Then came the jets that sprayed the area with napalm bombs. It was something to see. I have to believe the hand of God was over me once again. I could have been killed that day, but I wasn't. I was chosen. I was spared.
Every war has its own horror. In Vietnam, I saw things I couldn't believe. I saw innocent women and children die, memories that still haunt me. But that's war. War changes you. It torments you. You see things you cannot forget. I tell people when they ask me about Vietnam that it is by the mercy of God I'm still here. I could have easily been killed that day my company got hit. That's really all I can tell them. In a war zone, you can die at any given moment. From a sniper bullet, a booby trap, a kid with a grenade or weapon, a mortar attack or a firefight, your life is in constant danger. Each day that you survive is a gift of life.
However, patching up a wounded soldier or Marine or seeing one die before your eyes is something that will be embedded in your mind for the rest of your life, no matter how many doctors you see or how much therapy you get or how many pills you take. A combat medic sees things others can't.
From boyhood to now, my life has been a roller coaster. For years I've lived on the edge and didn't realize it. But I moved on. I didn't quit. I went to college on the GI Bill and got my degrees. My specialty was in health care. I worked at the William Beaumont Army Medical Center from 1978 to 1999 and held different positions there, one being the physical evaluation board liaison officer. I processed medical boards on soldiers. Then at the VA Health Care System as a health systems specialist and administrative assistant to the chief of staff. I retired from the VA in 2006 with a total of 36 years federal service, counting active duty. I know about veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. I've seen them. I've talked to them. I've seen the toll it took on them and their families. It's hard. It's sad. It took me back to 'Nam. I keep my flashbacks to myself.
Nevertheless, I am grateful for many things. I am a proud Vietnam War veteran. I am proud to have served as a Navy corpsman with the Marines. That is a heritage and legacy that only a few can claim. In my living room there is a display of my medals and ribbons with pictures of me in Vietnam. This was inspired by my wife, Alicia, when she said, "Display all your medals and ribbons. You have much to be proud of." Coming from my wife really meant something, so I did. In my study you will also see symbols of my legacy as a Navy corpsman. You will see Vietnam and military paraphernalia. You will see my college and naval school diplomas. From an associate's degree to two doctorates, you will notice my level of education. Education for me was not an option; it was a must. Also, my license plate reads "Navy and Marine Corps Medal." Needless to say, I drive my car with great pride.
Today I reside in my hometown, El Paso. I am comfortably retired and happily married to my sweetheart Alicia of 50 years ago. We finally married in 2004 after so many trials and tribulations, and, well, just life. We are blessed with a nice home. We have two adorable pet dogs named Babygirl and Precious. I am also an ordained, certified minister.
I get my health care from the VA. Despite the many challenges our VA health care systems are experiencing, the VA has taken very good care of me. They are truly great people. They understand veterans because that person walking through the doors of a VA clinic or hospital is not your typical patient. That patient is a veteran. You don't know what that person has been through and the medals and decorations that person may possess. Every veteran has a story. Respect is all veterans ask for. We've earned it. Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard, we're all brothers and sisters in arms. We know the price of freedom. We know the meaning of blood, sweat and tears. To be an American veteran is an honor and a great privilege. The honor is yours; the privilege you earned.
It has been said that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Well, that's how Vietnam impacted my life. I refuse to die without a purpose. I cannot leave this world without making my mark, especially for those who did not make it back from war.
My message is this: Don't give up; don't quit. Life is too precious. Live it.