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On Vietnam War Veterans Day, local veteran looks back

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Juno Ogle Photo Orlando Padilla stands in front of some of the memorabilia from his service in the Vietnam War displayed in his Roswell home. Padilla was a door gunner on a Bell HU-1 “Huey” helicopter with the 1st Cavalry Airmobile Division.

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Like the photographs themselves, the names of the men have faded from memory over the years, but he remembers where they were from.

Albuquerque, Ohio, Kansas, New York, Texas, California, Roswell.

The men are young, wearing wartime uniforms. Some are shirtless in the bright sun. They stand around crates, outside tents and shacks. Some pose with guns or with cans of beer.

They were the men who became Orlando Padilla’s family in Vietnam 50 years ago.

He’s tried over the years to track them down, but “It’s hard to go back,” he said.

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He brings up those memories now because he wants people to know the importance of Sunday, March 29 — National Vietnam War Veterans Day.

On March 29, 1973, the last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam; a year later, President Richard Nixon chose that day as the first Vietnam Veterans Day. It was officially designated in the Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017.

Padilla remembers what happened to some of the men in his photos.

“He got shot three times in the back and he was sent back to the states. God bless him,” Padilla said, pointing at one photo in the album in a front room of his Roswell home.

Along one wall are other mementos from his one-year tour, including medals, photos, a cavalry sword and a Stetson with yellow braids — the unofficial headgear of the U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Division.

Padilla knows he is lucky. He came home and built a good life with a family and a career.

He knows other veterans weren’t so lucky. That’s part of the reason he’s compelled to help them through organizations such as the American Legion.

He’s found family there among his fellow veterans as well.

Padilla is past commander and current financial officer/adjutant of American Legion Post No. 28, 1620 N. Montana, and is a past district commander as well.

He takes pride in his service to his country and his fellow veterans, but he admits that as a teenager in Dexter, he was against the U.S. becoming involved in Vietnam.

“All of us, practically, didn’t like the idea,” he said.

After he graduated high school in 1968, Padilla didn’t have any immediate plans. He worked several jobs in the small farming community. One day in March 1969, he got a piece of mail from the U.S. government.

“I remember my mom saying ‘You’ve got a letter here. It’s real fat. I don’t know what it is, but please let me know, I’m kind of worried,’” he said.

It was his draft letter.

“I knew it was my duty to go, and if I didn’t go, it would be harsh consequences, and I didn’t want that for my life,” Padilla said.

After completing basic training at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, Padilla chose the Army over the Marines, thinking that would keep him from being sent to Vietnam.

He was shipped to Fort Eustis in Newport News, Va., where he took 13 weeks of training in airframe repair and as a helicopter door gunner.

Then Padilla got his orders. He was being shipped to Vietnam with the 1st Cavalry Airmobile Division to a base camp in Phuoc Vinh. At first, he was assigned to aircraft repair, but after two months he was assigned as a crew chief door gunner on a Huey.

His unit would transport ground troops into the field and pick them up — alive or dead — after the battle, and also participated in combat skirmishes, including the first U.S. advancement into Cambodia in April 1970.

One memorable experience Padilla had in Vietnam helped set his path in life when he got home, he said.

At a village near the base camp was an orphanage that he would frequently visit.

“I would just go there. I couldn’t do much but I would go visit them and talk to them and everything,” he said.

One day while he was at the orphanage, five soldiers had gotten drunk.

“One of them had a grenade launcher, and I guess he was all messed up and he fired it into the air and it fell into the village,” he said.

“It fell right by the orphanage, and some kids were killed. It was one of my worst nightmares I ever experienced,” he said.

“I thought I was going to go up there and deal with adults, but I was also dealing with young people,” he said. “That played a big part in my life because later on, I became an educator,” he said.

While in Vietnam, Padilla had heard about how those returning home were greeted with protests. He didn’t fully understand until he experienced that himself, landing at Travis Air Force Base near Oakland, Calif.

“Some of my buddies and myself, we came to the ground and we kissed it. We made that promise we were going to do that,” he said.

“And then we got up and everyone was just looking at us. They were shouting profanities at us. I just couldn’t believe it,” he said.

It made him feel small, he said.

“I didn’t understand why they were doing that. I was very surprised,” he said.

Fortunately, he said, that was the only time he experienced any negative reaction to his service.

In the years that followed, Padilla took advantage of the G.I. bill and a scholarship for veterans to study for a bachelor’s degree and later a master’s degree from Eastern New Mexico University in Portales.

He credits his wife, Merlinda, with being able to do so. At the time, the Roswell campus didn’t have a teacher education program, so he would teach during the day in Roswell and take his master’s classes at Portales at night. The couple has three children and raised three adopted grandchildren.

He taught in Roswell for 25 years, starting in elementary grades, then middle school and high school. He especially reached out to students who, like him, spoke Spanish at home and learned English in school. He would work with their families, too, stressing the importance of education, as his own mother did when he was growing up. He coached sports and even taught Mexican folk dance.

One of his proudest honors, he said, even more than any of his military awards, was being nominated for Who’s Who Among American Teachers by three of his students in the 1980s.

Through all his years of teaching — although there wasn’t a name for it then — he dealt with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I couldn’t sleep sometimes, I’d have nightmares and withdrawals, and I would have flashbacks,” he said.

It wasn’t until after he retired that he received a diagnosis of PTSD through the Veteran’s Administration.

“I was still having problems with little sleep and nightmares and pain,” he said.

He now receives compensation for the disability, which allows him to take care of his family and devote time to helping other veterans.

Even though Padilla said he originally hadn’t wanted to go to Vietnam, he’s grateful for what his service brought to his life.

“Even though there’s been trials along the way, it’s not good if you don’t learn from it and you can’t pass on all your knowledge, not just to my family, but others,” he said.

“I want them to know that, especially now they way things are now, there’s always hope, and it will get better,” he said.