Vietnam Veteranos

[ Latino/a Studies ]

Vietnam Veteranos

Chicanos Recall the War

By Lea Ybarra

To spotlight and preserve some of their stories, this book presents substantial interviews with Chicano Vietnam veterans and their families that explore the men’s experiences in combat, the war’s effects on the Chicano community, and the veterans’ postwar lives.

2004

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Paperback

6 x 9 | 262 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-70244-8

One of the most decorated groups that served in the Vietnam War, Chicanos fought and died in numbers well out of proportion to their percentage of the United States' population. Yet despite this, their wartime experiences have never received much attention in either popular media or scholarly studies. To spotlight and preserve some of their stories, this book presents substantial interviews with Chicano Vietnam veterans and their families that explore the men's experiences in combat, the war's effects on the Chicano community, and the veterans' postwar lives.

Lea Ybarra groups the interviews topically to bring out different aspects of the Chicano vets' experiences. In addition to discussing their involvement in and views on the Vietnam War, the veterans also reflect on their place in American society, American foreign policy, and the value of war. Veterans from several states and different socioeconomic classes give the book a broad-based perspective, which Ybarra frames with sociological material on the war and its impact on Chicanos.

  • Foreword by Edward James Olmos
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part I. The Vietnam War and the Mexican American Community
    • 1. Introduction
  • Part II. Veterans Recall the War
    • 2. Idealism, Patriotism, and Politics
      • Gilberto
      • Tanis
      • Alejandro
      • Charley
      • Leonel
      • Tony
      • Raúl
      • Antonio
      • Guillen
      • John
    • 3. A Matter of Conscience
      • Obed
      • Ricardo
      • Frank
    • 4. Psychological and Medical Issues in the Aftermath of Vietnam
      • Ray
      • Lupe
      • David
      • Joe
      • Daniel
    • 5. The Impact of War on Family
      • Francisco
      • Marcello
      • Robert
      • Jay
      • Connie
      • Frank and Socorro
  • Part III. Overview of Issues Discussed by the Veterans
    • 6. The Impact of Differing Levels of Political and Cultural Awareness
    • 7. Psychological and Medical Problems
    • 8. What Did It All Mean?
    • 9. The Darkness of War
  • Notes

Whether or not one supported the Vietnam War, there can be general agreement that the war was a tragedy. This is particularly true when one considers the number of lives that were lost, the tremendous division that occurred within America during this time, and the fact that the Communist takeover, which the United States expended so many lives to prevent, occurred anyway.

There are many excellent books available that detail the Vietnam War. Only a brief overview of American involvement in Vietnam is provided here in order to set a context for the stories portrayed in this book and to help the reader better understand how the war affected so many lives.

U.S. involvement in Vietnam began in 1950, when President Truman provided aid to the French military in Indochina and sent thirty-five American advisors to Vietnam. In 1954, at the Geneva Conference on Indochina, President Eisenhower pledged aid to South Vietnam. When President Kennedy took office in 1961, he increased the number of American military advisors to South Vietnam. U.S. involvement continued to escalate until 1965, when the United States initiated the bombing of North Vietnam and the first American ground combat troops arrived in South Vietnam.

Once American troops set foot on Vietnamese soil, many battles were fought, and the number of dead and wounded escalated quickly. After the 1968 Tet offensive, during which both sides suffered heavy casualties, peace talks began. The war and destruction continued as peace negotiations were held on and off. In 1969, President Nixon ordered the staged withdrawal of American troops, but the last American combat troops did not leave South Vietnam until 1972. A truce agreement was signed in Paris in 1973, and the last U.S. military personnel left South Vietnam. Without U.S. assistance, South Vietnam could not remain independent, and by 1975 it came under the rule of the North Vietnamese government.

What were the costs of the Vietnam War in both human and economic terms? For the United States:

  • 57,605 Americans killed;
  • Over 303,700 wounded;
  • An estimated 27 million relatives affected by soldiers killed or wounded in Vietnam;
  • $24 billion in American aid to South Vietnam (1955-1975);
  • $165 billion in direct American expenditures for the war; in one year alone (the height of the war, 1968-1969), there were 400,000 American air attacks, dropping 1.2 million tons of bombs, at a cost of $14 billion).

For Vietnam:

  • 220,357 South Vietnamese military killed and half a million wounded;
  • 444,000 North Vietnamese/Vietcong killed;
  • 587,000 of the Vietnamese civilian population killed and 3 million wounded;
  • An estimated 8,000 to 15,000 Amerasian children born from American troops stationed in Vietnam;
  • 5.2 million acres of land defoliated.

With the cost of the Vietnam War, in both human and economic terms, quickly escalating, protest movements began to escalate as well. Within the Mexican American community "La batalla está aquí" was a rallying cry in the 1960s and 1970s for those who opposed the Vietnam War. They held that the real battle was in the United States, not in Vietnam, and that the billions of dollars that were being spent on the war abroad were needed for the war against poverty at home, for improving medical care, housing, and educational opportunities for Americans: "Every time we blow up a village in Vietnam we are spending enough money to build a new hospital or library here. While our bombers tear apart Vietnam, this war also tears apart our own nation—because there is not enough money to wage war and also deal with drugs, slums, medical care, and housing. The poor and unemployed, the Chicanos, Blacks and Puerto Ricans—these have paid the price of this war."

Others within the Mexican American community, however, felt that this was a price worth paying. Thousands of young Chicanos volunteered for military service during this period. Many felt it was an honor and a duty to serve their country. The ideology within this community, therefore, reflected that of the larger society: there were those who opposed and those who supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

While Chicanos who opposed the war did so for a variety of reasons, they were united in the belief that the Vietnam War was being fought disproportionately by ethnic minorities and the poor. These issues of race and class have been discussed in research on the topic of Mexican Americans and the war. Robin F. Scott states that the Mexican American veteran "returned to the United States to find the same old prejudices on the home front: certain restaurants still would not serve him, swimming facilities were barred to him, and his children or brothers and sisters were still being segregated in the schools." Rodolfo Acuña states that throughout World War II, Mexican Americans were treated as second-class citizens. While thousands fought in the war and earned more Medals of Honor than other ethnic group, they still faced racism and discrimination when they returned home.

In 1971 Ralph Guzmán brought the issue of race and war to the forefront and confirmed what many people in the Chicano movement had suspected. In his short but powerful article "Mexican American Casualties in Vietnam," Guzmán cites statistics that verify that Mexican American military personnel had higher death rates in Vietnam than all other ethnicities. His analysis of casualty reports from January 1961 to February 1967 and from December 1967 to March 1969 shows that a high percentage of young men with Spanish surnames were killed in Vietnam and that a substantial number of them were involved in high-risk branches of the service, such as the U.S. Marine Corps. Mexican Americans accounted for approximately 20 percent of U.S. casualties in Vietnam, although they made up only 10 percent of this country's population at the time.

According to Guzmán, Mexican Americans were under pressure to enlist because they had too often been considered foreigners in the land of their birth and felt they must prove their loyalty to the United States. Organizations like the GI Forum have long proclaimed the sizable contribution of the Mexican American soldier and point to impressive records of heroism in times of war. Guzmán emphasizes that there was a "concomitant number of casualties attending this Mexican American patriotic investment." There were also the desire for status that military life seemed to offer and a strong economic incentive, since many helped their families by sending money from their service allotments. Relatively few of them avoided the draft by obtaining the college deferments available to students in the Vietnam era. Guzmán concludes: "Other factors motivate Mexican Americans to join the Armed Forces. Some may be rooted in the inherited culture of these people, while others may be imbedded in poverty and social disillusion. Whatever the real explanation, we do know that Mexican Americans are over-represented in the casualty reports from Vietnam and underrepresented in the graduating classes of our institutions of higher learning."

The Guzmán article served as a manifesto for the growing antiwar movement in the Chicano community. This movement demonstrated its opposition to the war by holding moratoriums, marches, and demonstrations throughout the Southwest in which thousands of Chicanos participated. The protest movement was most forcefully illustrated by a speech titled "Chale con el draft" (No to the draft), given by Rosalío Muñoz in Los Angeles on September 16, 1969:

Today, the sixteenth of September, the day of independence for all Mexican people, I declare my independence of the Selective Service System. I accuse the government of the United States of America of genocide against the Mexican people. Specifically, I accuse the draft, the entire social, political, and economic system of the United States of America, of creating a funnel which shoots Mexican youth into Vietnam to be killed and to kill innocent men, women, and children and of drafting their laws so that many more Chicanos are sent to Vietnam, in proportion to the total population, than they send of their own white youth.

The ideas of unquestioning loyalty to the United States and of doing one's duty as a patriotic citizen were also challenged in an increasing number of publications, including La Batalla Está Aquí:

Historically, Chicanos have played major heroic roles, particularly during World War II and the Korean War, where there were a great number of Chicano war veterans who were heroes. But for every Chicano hero that made it home alive, there were a great many more Chicanos who died in battle. Today, with the Vietnam War, Chicanos are still fighting and dying to become war heroes. It is time that we begin to realize that our sons and brothers, husbands and boyfriends, cousins and nephews are the ones being used to fight a war from which La Raza gains nothing. We only lose.

Charles Ornelas and Michael González conducted an opinion survey among the Chicano community in Santa Barbara, California, in 1971. Their results indicated that Chicanos were more troubled by the war than were Anglo-Americans and that their worries matched those of other nonwhite communities. Chicano antiwar protests seemed to reflect community sentiment more than was generally accepted by critics. Chicanos expressed strong feelings against U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, as well as against the military policies of President Nixon. There was also dissatisfaction with the draft. At the time the poll was taken, almost half of the respondents considered the Vietnam conflict as the single most important problem facing the nation. Sixty percent agreed with the statement that the United States should "withdraw from Vietnam as fast as we can pull out the troops." Only 11 percent of the males and 4 percent of the females polled stated that we should "send more troops and step up the fighting till we win."10

The majority of the Chicanos polled also voiced disapproval of the way President Nixon was handling the Vietnam situation, with only 20 percent of the adult males and 12 percent of the adult females approving of his policies in Vietnam. Ornelas and González found that the level of support for Nixon was lower than that offered by the combined nonwhite populations in an August 1970 Gallup poll and was substantially lower than the support given Nixon by the general public. The study also found that a majority of adults and two-thirds of youth would not encourage their sons to join the service. Although the majority of the respondents disapproved of violence and rioting, 60 percent did approve of some forms of protest against the war, including protest marches. Ornelas and González conclude:

It ought not to be surprising if Chicanos speak out against the Asian conflict and relate it to problems at home. The impact of the war is not limited to the disproportionate higher casualty rate suffered by the Spanish-surnamed in comparison with the national average. Conditions in the barrios are aggravated by the inflationary war economy that strikes hardest at the many families with incomes below the poverty level. . . . It is because barrio conditions were here before Vietnam and because they will not disappear with the end to the fighting, that the Chicano Moratorium efforts have been increasingly linked to grievances attributed to internal colonialism and cutbacks in domestic programs. The war in Vietnam may fade away, but the struggle in the barrios will go on.

Since these early studies, there has been an increasing amount of work focused on Chicanos and the military, specifically on the subject of Chicano involvement in the Vietnam War. There have been some personal accounts, such as Roy Benavidez's The Three Wars of Roy Benavidez and Medal of Honor, and Everett Álvarez's Chained Eagle and Code of Conduct. There is also the work by Charley Trujillo, which includes a volume of interviews, Soldados, and a novel, Dogs from Illusion. Daniel Cano's novel, Shifting Loyalties, and Jorge Mariscal's Aztlán and Vietnam are recent additions to this literature. They are all important contributions to our understanding of the Vietnam War.

Additionally, there are data available on Latino veterans of all wars. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, as of 2001, there were 1,027,000 Latino veterans in the United States, almost 60 percent of whom served in times of war, including Korea, Vietnam, and both World Wars. An extensive profile of Latino veterans was compiled in a 1980 study titled Chart Book on Black and Hispanic Veterans. This report noted that Latino veterans possessed certain group characteristics: they were generally younger than their non-Latino counterparts (56 percent were under forty-five years of age, compared with 39 percent of non-Latinos); they had less formal education; there was a slightly higher representation of Latino veterans among the unemployed; and income levels were consistently lower than those of their non-Latino peers throughout virtually the entire age spectrum.

The Southwest and the West had the highest percentage of Latino veterans. New Mexico had the highest proportion of all—one out of every four veterans there was Latino. Five other states had veteran populations of at least 5 percent Latino: Texas (10.8 percent), Arizona (9.4 percent), California (8.8 percent), Colorado (7.7 percent), and Hawaii (5 percent). New York, Nevada, and Utah were the only other states with concentrations of Latino veterans in excess of 3.1 percent, the national average. More Latino veterans (38 percent) served during the Vietnam era than during any other single period.

Rosina M. Becerra and Milton Greenblatt conducted a study of veterans of all war eras to find out the utilization rate of Veterans Administration (VA) health services and the major factors influencing these utilization patterns. They state that Latino veterans were of particular interest to the VA because they were a population heavily represented during the Vietnam War, and yet they seemed to use VA medical services less often than persons belonging to other minority groups.

Of the Latino veterans Becerra and Greenblatt interviewed, the majority were army veterans. However, during the Vietnam War there was a higher percentage of Latinos who served in the Marine Corps. Several factors were thought to account for that choice, including a greater prominence of the Marine Corps during the Vietnam conflict and the desire of young men to belong to a "real man's" outfit.18 Of the Latino veterans they interviewed, 60 percent had been promoted to the rank of sergeant before being discharged.

In addition to constructing a profile, Becerra and Greenblatt provide an excellent analysis of issues affecting Latino veterans, such as family background, cultural identification, health-care satisfaction, and attitudes toward discrimination. Regarding the issue of discrimination, they found that

Vietnam veterans had a significantly stronger sense of being discriminated against than their older peers. . . . The Vietnam veteran was certainly much more vocal in his indignation about discriminatory practices probably because his consciousness had been raised as the result of the Chicano Movement of which he was and is a part. The older veteran was more likely to accept discriminatory treatment because by doing so he had learned to survive as a minority person in a majority culture. He was more likely to say things were fine at the VA because the organization treated him similarly to how he had been treated by other institutions in the past. The Vietnam veteran tended to feel that he deserved better.

Becerra and Greenblatt note that, regardless of the type of adaptation to their environment that veterans chose, "ethnic and economic discrimination was a fact of life, whether they lived inside or outside of the barrio. "The veterans they interviewed had joined the military expecting to be treated with respect as soldiers, but they had experienced difficulties. They found that "ethnic tensions and racist feelings were as evident in the military as in the civilian world. "One of the veterans Becerra and Greenblatt interviewed expressed this sentiment: "We were proud Mexicans. We fought in the war to prove that. But we were still Mexicans in the service, looked down upon. They always treated you as if you weren't smart enough."

One of the conclusions that Becerra and Greenblatt reached was that when Latino veterans were faced with barriers to medical care at the VA, "they perceived these hindrances as a continuation of discrimination that has existed over a life-time of encounters with established institutions. Such barriers are understood as yet another example of society's devaluation of Latinos as human beings." They stated that Latinos were insulted because they felt they were not begging for charity, but had earned the right to free medical treatment because of their service to this country.

In this chapter, discussion has centered on the impact that the Vietnam War had on the Mexican American community and the differing views regarding military service. In Part II, the discussion continues with a focus on the Vietnam War as seen through the eyes of Chicano Vietnam veterans. Their perceptions of the war and the issues it engendered—particularly as they relate to national loyalty, cultural and political awareness, medical and psychological effects, and philosophical perspectives on life and family—are addressed in the following stories. The testimony of the veterans themselves regarding their experiences during and after the Vietnam War provides the basis for discussion of these issues.

Chapter 2 comprises interviews that chronicle the veterans' journeys through different levels of political awareness. As young men, they went to Vietnam believing in the American ideals of freedom and democracy and were committed to fighting for these ideals. What they often found was a conflict between their strong sense of patriotism and duty and the often equally intense feeling of letdown and betrayal by the American government. These stories help us better understand the Vietnam experience from the perspectives of those who were disillusioned with the reality of the war and those who continued to support the war effort.

In Chapter 3, three veterans who grappled with the morality of war discuss the paths they took in becoming conscientious objectors. Each had to weigh his sense of patriotism and duty and examine his conscience. The different paths they chose help us examine our own sense of values and think about the path that each of us might have taken.

Chapter 4 discusses the aftermath of Vietnam and the psychological and medical issues it engendered. Veterans offer frank discussions of medical problems resulting from war injuries and exposure to Agent Orange to psychological problems arising from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and drug use.

In Chapter 5, the impact on the veterans' lives and their families is discussed. Within these stories, brothers share their common bond, a veteran and his wife share the issues they continue to deal with, and a mother shares the tragedy of losing her son in war.

Part III focuses on the lessons of Vietnam, both personal and national, as seen through the eyes of the veterans. Various issues brought forth during the interviews, such as political and cultural awareness, psychological and medical problems, and views toward war, are reviewed and analyzed.

Unfortunately, only twenty-four of the interviews could be presented at length in Part II. However, Part III contains quotes not only from those interviews but also from all the interviews conducted for this book. This incorporates the important voices of all the veterans who were interviewed and also adds to the range of perspectives taken into account when presenting an overview of the issues discussed.

In reading Vietnam Veteranos and the stories of Chicano Vietnam veterans speaking on all these issues, you will hear voices that have too often been silent. You may understand and relate to some of the stories, while others may disturb and shock you. You will find, nevertheless, that the stories are moving and compelling and shed light on a part of the American experience that has been overlooked for far too long.

 

Lea Ybarra is Executive Director of the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University and coeditor, with Edward James Olmos and Manuel Monterrey, of Americanos: Latino Life in the United States.

"Within the pages of this book, we truly get a candid look at war, patriotism, fear, and love. . . . My culture will benefit immensely from these strong and compelling stories, but my hope is that all cultures of this incredible society we call America will read the oral histories of Chicano Vietnam veterans and their families and learn."

—Edward James Olmos, from the Foreword