I will never forget January 16, 1967. It was a hot, dry day and it was also my birthday. Our platoon was out on patrol all day and when it started to get late, we knew we were not going to make it back to LZ Virginia to eat the hot supper that was airlifted out to us each evening. Some birthday this was going to be. It meant we would be eating the ghastly pork and lima beans from our C-rations that almost everybody hated. Our platoon leader, a lieutenant, must have had the same thing on his mind because the next thing we knew he was calling on the radio asking for choppers to come out to get us. The birds arrived shortly afterwards and we all sighed with relief as we headed home to a hot meal and some well-deserved rest. True to expectations, we arrived and had that hot meal and then settled back to recuperate from the patrol we had just been on. I started a letter to my mother and began to tell her about the nice weather we were having, how quiet things were at camp and how safe her son was--the usual things I made up to keep her from worrying that I was in harm's way. I looked up from my letter writing and saw in the distance we had just returned from, helicopters which were firing ARA rounds at targets below them.
Shortly after, we started getting word that there was enemy activity and that we would have to go back out to the field. We got the order to "saddle up" and lift choppers arrived, which we boarded, four to six guys on each one. They took us to where we had been that afternoon and dropped us off near a village. While we were there, we were sent out to search a suspected VC camp and automatic fire broke out when patrols were checking out the area. Several of us started down an embankment and I graciously stepped aside as our platoon leader led the way. He was followed by a group of us, with me picking up the rear. Apparently we surprised a nest of Vietcong because the next thing we knew a grenade was thrown at us and exploded. I remember being hit and yelling out in my native Spanish, "Oh my God... mom I've been shot in the head," and thinking to myself that I was going to die. I felt a burning sensation in my groin, arms and legs. The concussion paralyzed my brain and everything seemed to be going from fast to slow motion. I had seen Fred Booker, our forward observer and an Englishman who hard served with the British Army before coming to the U.S., come down from the embankment and fall to my right. I was coughing from all of the smoke around us and he looked like a store mannequin. Everything was like a dream. It seemed to me that the leaves from the trees were coming down in slow motion. I was paralyzed and only when I heard a ringing in my ears did I realize I was coming back from consciousness. I could not see anyone else since I was in shock. I did manage to limp out of the hole I was in and saw a trooper on the ground taking cover. Someone came up to me, forced me down on the ground and called for a medic. As I was being treated, I looked up and saw jets flying above and bombing the area near us. In reality, four of us had been hit by shrapnel and were in serious condition. I don't remember much after that except that in the medevac helicopter the pilot on the right gave me a thumbs up.
We were taken to the aid station at LZ Betty. I later learned that our platoon had killed four Vietcong. When I woke up, I was being treated at the aid station for wounds to my lower body. On gurneys nearby were Robert Martinez, our medic and Fred Booker. Doctors were working on Booker and he appeared to be in pretty bad shape, completely saturated in blood. They were doing a tracheotomy on him by sticking a tube in his throat so that he could breathe. Another trooper, George White was not as seriously wounded. The doctors at the aid station stabilized us and we were flown to the field hospital at Nha Trang. The hospital at Nha Trang was a terrible place to be. Everywhere around us were soldiers who had been wounded and were recuperating. We tried to make the best of it and during the time I was there, I got to know my fellow wounded compatriots well. We talked a lot and even exchanged addresses, figuring we might get lucky now and be sent back to the States as a result of our wounds. I was there the day that a colonel arrived at the hospital to present Sgt. Booker with the Silver Star--just as Booker was relieving himself in a hospital bedpan. Doc Martinez was later awarded a Silver Star and Bronze Star for valor and, of course, the Purple Heart. Another of my memories is that oddly enough, one of the Vietcong who had lobbed the grenade at us had been wounded by it at the same time and had ended up here with us. I don't know what happened to him after he recovered and assume he was sent to the stockade as a POW.
One day at a time, my three wounded and recovering friends, were transferred to other places and I was left alone at the hospital. I was depressed and had a terrible time dealing with my own problems. Eventually, I returned home and made contact with Robert Martinez. We kept in touch, but little by little we lost that communication until finally our bonds were severed. It wasn't until about 6 years ago that Martinez got in touch with me again and we connected with Booker and White. To this day, I give thanks to God that January 16th is just my birthday and not the date that my family would have had to remember as the day that I died.
As told to Rolando Salazar by Joe Sanchez, January 12, 2003,