I arrived home one day after my classes at Edgewood High School in San Antonio, TX were over and it was then that the direction of my life changed forever. My mom was crying uncontrollably. There, clinched in her hands was the telegram that my older brother, Sergeant (E-5) Isidoro “Lolo” Lopez, who had been the person I looked up to and who I considered my hero, had been wounded in Vietnam. I could see the distraught look in my mother’s eyes. Somehow we got through that day. Subsequently, we learned that my brother was patched up and was sent back into the jungle to face more combat. “America needs me,” he gallantly told mom.
The love for my brother, along with following my father’s, Hilario Lopez, footsteps who had fought in World War II, caused me to drop out of high school and join the Army at the age of 18. During basic training, I was told I could not be sent to the combat zone because my brother was in country already and I could be considered the sole surviving son if he was killed. I was still resolved to go to Vietnam, so I volunteered.
After basic I got accepted to Airborne School in Fort Benning, Georgia but tower week became too much. Damn those chin-ups. After a couple of weeks I was being recycled but I decided not to go through the jump training again. I then decided to volunteer to help train Army Rangers in Pensacola, Florida. I thought if I could be involved in some way, I could get closer to Vietnam and hopefully see my brother. That’s how naïve I was. Each day, I waited anxiously for my orders. Finally after several months the day came. I landed in Cam Ron Bay, Vietnam in May 1968. A few days later I was in Da Nang, and my new home became Quang Tri. My MOS was infantryman 11 Bravo. I started as an RTO (radio transmitter operator) and carried a PRC-77 rucksack with c-rations, water, socks, and ammunition.
A month later I learned that my brother had been wounded again, this time more seriously. He was flown home due to the injuries so I was not going to see him here. Now, on my own, I came to trust my new fellow soldiers, my buddies, in the First Calvary Division, attached to the 5th Infantry Division in Camp Red Devil (Charlie 1, Charlie 2 Firebase Camp).
The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was within 10 miles from camp, too close for comfort even for me. There we experienced several incoming fire fights and mortar fire. We would go out in combat patrol and face enemy ambushes that turned into fire fights. It was during my fifth fire fight on Oct 1, 1968 that I spotted Charlie and I reported it to my squad leader. All of a sudden, a fire fight broke out and a grenade exploded between my legs and I went down. I had shrapnel wounds on both calves. I was still fighting off the enemy until a buddy came out to drag me back to the platoon perimeter. While I was being dragged I took a bullet to my left chest wall. This is when I said “what the heck am I doing here…my brother is already back in the US and I am here…and now I am also wounded.”
The fire fight continued and night quickly approached. We were waiting for a medi-vac chopper to carry 7 of us WIA’s and 4 KIA’s but the chopper couldn’t land due to enemy fire. I began to hallucinate and thought I heard the sound of the chopper’s engine. While we waited, my buddies reassured me by saying “You are going to be ok, just hang on”. They took turns telling us this as they dug a hole with their bare hands to build a fire so the chopper could see where to land. It was that fire glow that guided the pilot to find us. Even in and out of consciousness, my heart was heavy leaving my buddies behind. Being loaded into the chopper with the other wounded and casualties, I told by buddies, “I will come back to be with you.” I am haunted sometimes by not being able to return. The physical wounds healed, but my heart still hurts for my buddies who helped me on that day and the rest of the soldiers that remained to carry on the fight.
I was taken to Quang Tri field hospital. They treated my wounds and I was sent to two other hospitals in Vietnam before I was taken to Yokohama, Japan for more surgeries. In November 1968, I arrived in a stretcher at Kelly AFB San Antonio, Texas, my hometown. Only my mother, sisters and a few relatives were waiting for my arrival at the Beach Pavilion at Fort Sam Hospital where I recuperated. After 7 long months after being wounded I was able to walk again using crutches. I thought myself lucky that I still had my legs.
Finally I got to go home to visit my mother. Sitting in her kitchen was my brother Lolo in his Marine uniform. For a minute, I thought I was in heaven. But, it was really him. After starting this long tough journey to find my brother, we both made conversation filled with tears of sadness for each other and our fellow soldiers. We vowed to remain strong and live our lives to honor them. Both my brother and I still remain close today.
I remained in the US Army until 2007 and was assigned to various forts throughout the country. In 1996 until I retired I was attached to law enforcement and assigned to certain drug task forces in Texas.
Even today, the smell of gunpowder, the sounds of taps being played at burials, hearing the national anthem and reciting the pledge of allegiance have special meaning for me due to my Vietnam War experiences.
When Saigon fell, I thought “what were we fighting for?” understanding the high cost of lives lost and suffering inflicted on so many families. My innocence was gone but I did my duty. I want future generations to know that the freedoms we enjoy do not come free and even though they may join the military or not, to always be proud of those that serve their country and appreciate the real sacrifice and human tragedy that occurs with war.
We honor you, Marcos Lopez.