My Vietnam Story
Albert A. Hernandez
I graduated from Jefferson High in El Paso in May 1965. After graduation, I visited my grandparents in Casas Grandes, Mexico. I was having a great time until my mother sent a telegraph telling me to get home as soon as possible. When I got home, there was a letter waiting for me, telling me to report to the reception station downtown for my physical. I was on the verge of being drafted into the military. Immediately I went to the Navy recruiting office. The recruiting officer said not to worry, they would take me in. They signed me up.
I reported to Boot Camp and underwent 12 weeks of training. In those days Navy boot camp was brutal. The last week of boot camp we saw our assignments. I was to report to Navy Hospital Corps School in San Diego. I was going to be a Navy Hospital Corpsman (medic). It was 16 weeks of intensive study and training in the area of medicine and patient care. It was an experience that would shape my future.
After Hospital Corps School I was assigned to the Balboa Naval Hospital, San Diego. I worked on the wards for exactly six months. I worked all three shifts; I know what hospital work is like. It’s not easy. By the way, San Diego is a great city. I loved the climate.
Then came the shocker. I was “drafted” to the Fleet Marine Force (FMF). In October 1966 I reported to the Field Medical Service School in Camp Pendleton, California, to be trained as a combat medic. Navy corpsmen serve as medics to the Marines. We didn’t know that. The Marines trained us hard, got us in top physical shape. It was six weeks of grueling training. We were on our way to…war!
After that, we got five days of leave, to say goodbye to our families. I remember wearing my Marine Dress Greens. My dad was confused and said, ” I thought you joined the Navy.” I had to explain to him. My dad was an Air Force retiree and a veteran of WWII and Korea. He knew and understood where I was going. He passed away in 1997. I miss him dearly.
I deployed to Vietnam in December of 1967. It was a very bleak time for me and my family. My mother and a small brother of mine saw me off at the airport. My mother could not stop crying. She gave me the blessing of the Cross on my forehead. I boarded the plane at Travis Air Force Base in the San Francisco Bay Area that was going to Hawaii. From Hawaii, I boarded a C-130 military transport to Okinawa. From Okinawa onto Vietnam. From Camp Pendleton to Vietnam, it was a lonely journey going to war.
I arrived in Da Nang on a cold and rainy December night. They gave me a sandwich and drink for the night and a bunk to sleep on. Next morning I along with others were flown in a Chinook chopper from Da Nang to Phu Bai. Phu Bai was to be my home combat base. It was not too far from the DMZ. I reported to the processing area where I was fitted with combat gear, my medical bag, and a .45 caliber pistol with 5 clips of rounds. In Vietnam corpsmen were authorized to carry a weapon for self-defense. That’s how bad it was even for medics. I was then trucked to my company which was about 10 miles from Phu Bai, up on some hill. I reported to the senior corpsman. My medical bag was filled with pills, needles, syringes, wound dressings and other medical items. I was assigned to the 2nd platoon of Hotel Company. I was immediately introduced to some hard-core Marines that day and the other platoon corpsman. They didn’t waste any time. I went on my first patrol that night. I was really scared. It was dark and you couldn’t see where you were going. Somehow, the squad leader led the way. We heard a fire-fight. Someone ran into something not too far from us. We waited our turn, but nothing happened. The next morning, we saw what had happened. Another squad ran into a pack of Viet Cong (VC). I saw my first glance of war. VC bodies were laying on the side of a road. It was a gruesome sight. Reality really set in. I was in war. Now I was shook up. I won’t make it, I thought. This could have been us. I prayed that day. Every night I would say a prayer…every night.
I will not bore you with a bunch of war stories or details but there is a particular experience of mine that I need to tell. We were on a company patrol one day and I got sick. The senior corpsman couldn’t spare anyone to take me to the nearest camp that was about 3 miles down the road and railroad tracks. I was told to follow the tracks that would lead me to an Army outfit. I walked the tracks alone. I kept thinking what would happen to me if the enemy spotted me. I was scared. Every step I took was in fear. I would be no match for the enemy. When I got to the Army camp, they were amazed that I had walked that distance all by myself and that no one spotted me. I have to believe the hand of God was over me. My Guardian Angel was with me. I was not alone. I was given food and shelter by the Army guys and trucked to Phu Bai the next day. There were many close calls and there were days when I was sure I would not make it. I was in over 200 patrols and three major operations. In the last operation, my company got hit real hard. We were ambushed by an NVA (North Vietnamese Army) outfit. These were highly trained troops. The other corpsman in my platoon was severely wounded. I heard he died later. Every other corpsman in the company got hit. The senior corpsman was killed instantly along with the company commander. The platoon officer, a young Marine lieutenant, was also killed. Only about 20 guys were left of my company, I was later told. I was the only corpsman alive and unwounded. I think about this all the time. It was “Not My Time” (a paper I wrote years ago for Veterans’ Voices Magazine).
Every war has its own horror. In Vietnam, I saw things I couldn’t believe. I saw innocent women and children die, memories that still haunt me. But that’s war. War changes you. It torments you. You see things you cannot forget. I tell people when they ask me about Vietnam that it is by the grace of God I’m still here. I could have easily been killed that day my company got hit. My name on the “Wall” could have easily been there. That’s really all I can tell them. In a war zone, you can die at any given moment. From a sniper bullet, a booby trap, a kid with a grenade or weapon, a mortar attack, to an all out fire-fight, your life is in constant danger. Each day that you survive is a gift of life.
A renown Christian preacher from a mega size church in San Antonio said this: “America owes an apology to every Vietnam War veteran.” His congregation gave a thunderous applause. The famous General of the Army, Omar N. Bradley, once said this: “Wars can be prevented just as surely as they can be provoked…and we who fail to prevent them, must share the guilt for the dead.” Powerful words from a preacher and a great general! I wish our nation could heed these words, because you see, patching up a wounded Marine, or seeing one die before your eyes, is something that will be embedded in your mind for the rest of your life, no matter how many doctors you see or how much therapy you get, or how many pills you take. A combat medic sees things others can’t. Let me educate everyone: There is nothing glorious or famous about a torn body or a traumatized mind. And there is certainly no glory or fame in the grave six feet underground; there is only a corpse. And that flag draped over the casket means nothing to the one in it.
From a boy who built model ships in his bedroom, to the rice patties of Vietnam, my life has been a roller coaster of ups and downs. For years I’ve lived on the edge and didn’t realize it. But I moved on. I didn’t quit. I went to college on the GI Bill and got my degrees. My specialty was in healthcare. I worked at the William Beaumont Army Medical Center (WBAMC) from 1978 to 1999 and held different positions there, one being the PEBLO (physical evaluation board liaison officer). I processed medical boards on soldiers. Then at the VA Health Care System as a health systems specialist and administrative assistant to the Chief of Staff. I retired from the VA in 2006 with a total of 36 years federal service, counting active duty time. I know something about today’s health care system and the problems plaguing it. I know about those veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve seen them. I’ve talked to them. I’ve seen the toll it took on them and their families. It’s hard. It’s sad. It took me back to ‘Nam. I keep my flashbacks to myself.
Nevertheless, I am grateful. I am grateful for many things. I am also a proud Vietnam veteran. I am proud to have served as a U. S. Navy Hospital Corpsman with the Marines. That is a heritage and legacy that only a few can claim. In my living room there is a display of my medals and ribbons with pictures of me in Vietnam. These were inspired by my wife, Alicia, when she said, “Display all your medals and ribbons, you have much to be proud of.” Coming from my wife really meant something, so I did. In my study you will also see symbols of my legacy as a Navy Corpsman. You will see Vietnam and military paraphernalia. You will see my college and naval school diplomas. From an associate’s to two doctorates, you will notice my level of education. Education for me was not an option; it was a must. And, on my license plates is a special medal. On the bottom of the plates that reads, “Navy and Marine Corps Medal.” Needless to say, I drive my car with great pride.
Today, I reside in my hometown, El Paso. I am comfortably retired and happily married to my sweetheart of 44 years ago. We finally married in 2004. We are blessed with a nice home. We have two adorable pet dogs named “Babygirl” and “Precious.” I also get my health care from the VA. Despite the many challenges our VA health care systems are having, and the countless complaints against it, the VA has taken care of me. They are great people. They understand veterans because that person walking through the doors of a VA clinic or hospital is not your typical patient. He/she is a veteran. You don’t know what that person has been through and the medals and decorations that person may possess. Respect is all veterans ask for. We’ve earned it. Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard, we’re all brothers and sisters in arms. We know the price for freedom. We know the meaning of blood, sweat, and tears. To be an American veteran is an honor and a great privilege. The honor is yours; the privilege you earn. It has been said that what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. Well, that’s how Vietnam impacted my life. I refuse to die without a purpose. I cannot leave this world without making my mark, especially for those who did not make it back from war.
I close with this biblical verse: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.”–Ecclesiastes 9:10 (NIV).
That’s my story, My Vietnam Story.
Dr. Albert A. Hernandez, D. Div.
S. Navy Hospital Corpsman
Fleet Marine Force (FMF)