McALLEN — Recalling memories of the Vietnam War, several soldiers talk about their struggles in the jungle and their return to civilian life, which, when dressed in military garb, was either met with disdain or complete disregard.
Last weekend with LZ: RGV, the community finally welcomed home and thanked Rio Grande Valley Vietnam veterans for their service with proclamations, presentations and the Healing Wall, a replica of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., as an effort to remember those who died in combat.
“We failed to do that as a country,” said retired United States Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez at a dedication ceremony.
Progress Times contributing photographer Douglas Young, originally of Orlando now living in McAllen, is a Vietnam veteran, serving two tours as an infantry officer for the U.S. Army. In 1966-67, Young, a lieutenant, served in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade near the village of Binh Chánh, just south of Saigon. In 1969-70, he was in the Tây Ninh province, northwest of Saigon.
Of his accolades, most of which he keeps in a box, Young said he’s most proud of his Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB), a combat service recognition awarded to soldiers who fought in active ground combat.
“When you go home, you travel in uniform, and at a stop in Atlanta, I got a beer at a bar sitting near three men in business suits,” Young said. “One of them bought me a beer and came up to me and said, ‘Thank you for your service.’ That’s the only thing I ever had happen to me.”
Big celebratory homecoming celebrations didn’t exist back then, Young said, because soldiers came home individually and not in groups like they do today.
Since his time in the Army, Young has returned to Vietnam with his wife, Lt. Cynthia Mason, a nurse at the 24th Evacuation Hospital, whom he met during his second tour. Along with revisiting Vietnam, the two have lived there for months at a time, teaching English.
In his first trip, Young was anxious about meeting with customs officers who he feared would discover he was a U.S. soldier and treat him poorly. But they didn’t notice and he went through security like any other foreign visitor.
On April 9, while hundreds of veterans and their families surveyed maps and visited the Healing Wall, Young spoke with veterans, taking their photo and asking if they’d ever consider returning to Vietnam.
With each veteran he approached, Young was quick to notice their pins and badges, asking which were the most important and joking with soldiers who earned a Purple Heart.
“You zigged when you were supposed to zag,” Young, who also earned a Purple Heart, teased as they laughed.
Staff Sgt. Alfredo Gonzalez of Edinburg earned a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts after being wounded serving in the Americal Division.
“I get mad,” Gonzalez said of recalling the war and the way he felt unwelcomed when he returned home.
Gonzalez, who walks with a cane, said it upsets him to hear of other Vietnam-era veterans talk about the war when they weren’t in combat.
“They give guys like you and me a bad name,” Young told Gonzalez.
Weekly, Gonzalez treats his posttraumatic stress disorder through therapy.
“When I think about it, it makes me cry,” he said while weeping. “This helps. It’s beautiful and I’m glad they finally recognized us.”
Asking veterans if they’d consider going back to Vietnam, Young explained that the city streets are clean and much of the country looks completely different. With his cellphone, Young showed surprised veterans pictures of the bustling industrial communities.
“I’d like to take some vets back,” Young said later. “It really is a healing thing.”
Brownsville high school sweethearts Joe S. Cardenas and Wilma Esparza-Gonzalez were separated when Cardenas left to Vietnam to fly with the 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division. The two were reunited two years ago and plan to marry soon. The couple said they’d be eager to visit Vietnam.
“You get to face those demons,” Esparza-Gonzalez said.
Cardenas, like so many other soldiers, said LZ:RGV offered them a unique opportunity to talk about their experiences.
At the Healing Wall, Young met Army combat medic Efrain Avila who was seriously wounded and paralyzed helping a soldier in 1966. Avila’s speech is impaired and his family didn’t know much about his military service to explain where he had served.
“I saw his combat medic badge and something in me triggered,” Young said. “I don’t know why but I got very emotional.”
He quickly took Avila’s photo before walking away, bursting into tears. Young said he was reminded of Jerry “Doc” Watson, the medic who tended to him when he got hit with shrapnel in a foxhole where three other soldiers died.
“That grabbed me,” he said.
Young said he’s moved on from his time in Vietnam and openly avoids events focusing on the past.
“It was better than what I thought it’d be,” he said. “It was not, ‘poor me.’ The guys genuinely appreciated the effort. And I was surprised at how many vets were curious to go back. Usually they say ‘no’ immediately.”
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