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Vietnam veteran values life he didn’t expect to have

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After Santiago Vasquez returned to Roswell from Vietnam in 1969, his family made a pilgrimage to El Santuario de Chimayó, the Catholic shrine in Chimayó known for the belief its dirt has healing powers.

Santiago Vasquez shows one of the Bronze Star awards he received for his service in Vietnam. The Roswell native served in the U.S. Army 9th Infantry Division from 1968 to 1969. (Juno Ogle Photo)

More than 50 years later, talking about that trip and his experiences of his year in Vietnam still stirs up feelings for Vasquez.

“My mom said that when I made it back, we’d all go over there. And we did,” he said, his voice breaking with emotion.

It was a visit Vasquez said he thought he would not make.

Vasquez was 19 when he was drafted into the Army. After basic training at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, and advanced infantry training in Oakland, California, he was flown to the Mekong Delta, a 15,000-square-mile area of southwest Vietnam that Vasquez described as jungle and water.

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“I expected to die. I never thought I’d see 20,” he said.

He didn’t let his family know that, though.

“Of course you wanted to prepare your family. You didn’t want to be weak. My dad was a World War II veteran and you were expected to do your time,” he said.

“When I went, I said ‘No big deal. I’ll see you guys when I get back.’ But inside, I’m thinking this is it, this is the last goodbyes,” he said.

Born and raised in Roswell, Vasquez said when he was in high school, he didn’t pay much attention to what was happening in Vietnam, where the U.S. had been fighting communist North Vietnamese forces since 1964.

“I didn’t know where Vietnam was. I didn’t know what it was about,” he said.

“Many, many years later, I realized that what we were doing was supposed to be fighting the Communists, but I don’t think any of us knew what we were doing there. We were just picked up by the draft and taken there,” he said.

Vietnam was different from previous wars, Vasquez said, because the young men went as individuals rather than as a unit.

“World War II, they went as units. Whole battalions, brigades went to fight. We went as individuals.

“I got trained with a bunch of other people but when I went to Vietnam, I went by myself. I replaced somebody who went home one way or another, in a body bag or went home after his time,” he said.

Despite the individual method of troop replacement, Vasquez said he and his fellow infantrymen bonded over a common desire — survival.

“We had the flags and we’re patriotic and all that, but when you’re fighting, you’re not fighting for your country. You’re fighting for yourself and for the person next to you, and you might not have known him but a week or two,” he said.

“You know he wants to go home and he wants you to go home. If you go home, that means you’re taking care of him, too,” he said.

“There were no heroes over there. Everybody did just enough to survive — that day, that hour, those 10 minutes or whatever,” he said.

Vasquez was stationed at a firebase. The troops would set up for night ambushes with mines and machine guns to protect the base against Viet Cong — south Vietnamese who supported the communist leadership in North Vietnam.

“Then during the day, you were on search and destroy. Walking through the jungle to the little villages. Most of the time there was nothing, just jungle,” he said.

“And there’s all different kinds of ways to die — booby traps, being shot, snipers, mortars, everything,” he said.

Vasquez received two Air Medals — one for every 25 missions where he was flown into combat by helicopter. The helicopters were equipped with machine guns on both sides as well as rockets.

“You’re going down to land and the machine guns are going and they’re firing rockets, too. You can’t cover your ears because you’re getting ready to get off. It’s crazy. And you’re like a sitting target, the bullets are coming in … it’s just commotion,” he said.

He also received two Bronze Star awards and a Good Conduct Medal.

When Vasquez did return to Roswell, he went to work a week later and said he just forgot about the war.

“I did. I forgot about it. I went to college on the GI Bill, got my degree in social work and went about earning a living,” he said.

He worked as a social worker in the Dexter schools and for the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department for 25 years.

It wasn’t until after he retired — 40 years after his time in Vietnam — that the war came back to his memories and he began to talk about it.

“I was retired, I didn’t have to concentrate on putting food on the table” for the family, he said. And soon after, the U.S. sent troops to combat in Iraq.

“That triggered stuff for me,” he said.

He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and was able to receive disability compensation.

But even the compensation and the time that has passed aren’t able to make up for what he and others experienced in Vietnam, he said. The trauma can come back when it’s least expected, but it also helps him see life differently, he said.

“It did change my life. Man, I value things now. Just beautiful days and waking up. There’s many young men that didn’t get to do that,” he said.

That’s another reason he said the pilgrimage to Chimayó is still so meaningful to him. He went not just for himself, but for those who didn’t make it home.

“We lost a lot of young men who didn’t have an opportunity to fulfill their dreams,” he said.

Vasquez said he also finds some relief from the trauma in the veterans organization he belongs to, including Roswell’s American Legion Post 28. It’s been a long year without the camaraderie of his fellow veterans due to the pandemic, he said, and he’s looking forward to the post being able to open again.

“We’re looking forward to getting together again and to do stuff in the community and help out other veterans, because that’s the whole purpose is to help our veterans,” he said.

City/RISD reporter Juno Ogle can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or reporter04@rdrnews.com.

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