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By CC Barrón
The beauty of the flora and fauna, the plethora of marine life, and common folk tilling the earth to feed themselves amid a civil war and unsolicited guests. These were my first impressions of a land I had never heard of or could have imagined growing up as a street urchin East of the Los Angeles River in a community of immigrants.
The humidity that hit me like a ton of bricks exiting the aircraft that delivered us to Tan Son Nhut air base, was only secondary to our reception of mortars and rockets while deboarding our C-130; at that moment I longed for the dry heat of East Los Angeles and the Vatos (Caló for homeboys) shooting off cherry bombs just for laughs.
Saigon reminded me of most large metropolises; populated with small cylinder motor bikes and choking exhaust that left a taste of petroleum and dust in your throat. It was only a matter of time before that taste would include the blood of combatants.
My destination was due South and West of the 17th parallel — Hon Tre Island in the Bay of Na Trang.
Crossing the Bay on an LCU to Hon Tre was filled with razzing from Special Forces, Marines and Airmen; a welcome to really "bad duty." Since we all were going there together I figured the poor duty wasn't personal and we'd all have the same objective— to get back home in one piece.
Upon disembarking we all went in different directions. Special Forces went deep into the center of the Island; we knew they were around by the sound of their ordnance. The Marines became ghosts and vanished into the bush never to be seen again.
My CO on the Island was a good old boy from Arkansas who immediately directed me to the "Black Man's Hooch." I didn't mind, the music was better and besides I took my orders from 5th TAC and Hon Tre would only be home base between missions.
Diving in the Bay of Na Trang on Hon Tre Island revealed a shared harmony with barracuda, mana rays and eels unlike the encounters with species of my own kind.
I had made peace with the pit vipers resting in the sandbags and the rats seeking sustenance while we slept during the monsoons. While on mission, the occasional purr or snore of tigers of the four-and two-legged kind in the bush didn't alarm me as much as Charlie Victor or worse yet North Vietnam regulars on the prowl.
I told my psychiatrist at the VA that I often felt safer in the bush than back on the island where we'd plan and launch our offensives. I had only one objective and I was always determined to complete it at all costs — there was no room for failure. Everything was perfectly timed from its execution to our escape and rendezvous at our appointed LZ.
Little did I know that the monsoon rains were filled with Agent Orange, which would become the curse of my life after thinking that coming home whole was success in and of itself.
Or the Napalm we targeted would be restricted only to the Ho Chi Minh Trail without collateral damage to the villagers in its vicinity. What did Laotians and Cambodians have to do with our mischief?
I couldn't help but recall my own family. They too worked the land in central Mexico when the Mexican Revolution forced them to choose a side over ideas that had never crossed their minds.
Small in stature, dark and indigenous to the land they worked to feed themselves their only crime until they were forced to leave their beloved homeland to somewhere much safer and begin again.
At this point, a volunteer not drafted who responded to the clarion call, "ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country," caused me to enlist and later to acknowledge that I had been duped. Was it my naivete as an eighteen-year-old from the barrio or the assassinations of our Catholic President and his brother that made me believe that our country was without fault or duplicity?
When asked to disclose the worst experiences of my in-country deployment, I speak about the super-size mosquitoes that attacked with resolve, the centipedes the length and breadth of a man's forearm, and leeches that rained with the monsoon to tax our every step. I remain ambiguous about my military service. Whose side was I on? I returned home happy to be back in the world, only to be greeted by anger and hate for my service. In my youth, an alleyway was the preferred escape route when the odds were against you. In the bush, filled with beauty, mystery, and its teeming inhabitants—the mugginess gave no quarter. America remains uncertain about our Vietnam Veterans—ask any of us what our sacrifice was for—a policing action predicated upon a lie on 18-year-olds who could not vote but could go to war.
Carlos C. Barrón, USAF 1968-1972. He completed his undergraduate and post graduate degrees at public and Private Universities in California. He's a retired educator.