By Rachel Byrd
On October 11 Lone Star College-Kingwood hosted an event celebrating Latino Veterans of the U. S. Armed Forces as the last event of the Hispanic History Series. Professor Jesse Esparza, Ph.D. led the lecture, “Fighting Multiple Fronts: Latinos and the Vietnam War”, and an interview with Antonio Gonzalez Ph.D., who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War.
Esparza’s lecture was highly informative, explaining why the Vietnam War was fought, how it affected the Latino community, and what civilians at home thought about the war. Quoting a Latino civilian who worked with the military during the war, Esparza says, “It was an unnecessary war, and we lost more than 50,000 of our young, and many of them were Latino.”
The lecture included references to events that specifically affected the Latino community in the Houston area. He explained what life looked like for Latino Americans during the years of the war. He described the importance of Mexican-American involvement in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, as well as explaining how many Hispanic soldiers lost their lives during the war.
“Unfortunately,” Esparza says, “we only have half the story because much of the history of this war has been largely focused on the experiences of other soldiers. This is due in part to the existing paradigm of race that exists within the United States, which places Latinos, among other groups along the margins of historical events.” He later adds, “…the experiences of Mexican-Americans remain largely untold.”
However, Esparza has found understanding how the Vietnam War affected minority communities such as Latino Americans is extremely important in understanding the war, saying, “Their relationship to the Vietnam War—as war participants or anti-war protestors—is historically significant. Moreover, understanding that they are historically significant sends a powerful message that Latinos should be recognized as genuine American history-makers.”
Esparza intended for the event to highlight the importance of Latino voices in regards to historical events, such as the Vietnam War. While historians have begun digging deeper into Latino experiences during the Vietnam War, there are still many studies to be done. For example, the stories of families of soldiers and Latino veterans of prior wars, such as WWII, are often forgotten.
In the second half of the event, Esparza interviewed Antonio Gonzalez, who is a veteran of the Vietnam War. Gonzalez was drafted into the military at the age of 23. At the time he was attending college as a full-time student, which ought to have exempted him from military service, but he lost his deferment. He attempted to go to Officer School as part of the Bootstripe Program, but the orders that would have allowed him to do so were not received until Gonzalez returned from Vietnam.
“I came to the strong realization that, you know, it was going to happen,” said Gonzalez. His prediction turned out to be right, as he received his orders for Vietnam in November of 1968.
Gonzalez described receiving his orders for Vietnam as “frightening.” He told his father the news, but he did not tell his mother and two aunts where he was being sent.
“The only one I really told was my father,” Gonzalez explained. “But he said, ‘Don’t tell your mother or your aunts, your tias.” He only told his mother and his aunts he was, “going to be sent to a nice place.” Even so, he believes his mother and his aunts had guessed that he and his father were hiding something from them.
Gonzalez was stationed in Benoit, roughly 30 miles from Saigon, where he served guarding the perimeter of the base either in a trench or in a tower. He remembers being fired upon during the TET Offensive in February of 1968, as well as receiving a leg injury.
Gonzalez returned to Texas in 1970. He completed his enlistment at Arlington Air Force Base. Returning to civilian life was, according to Gonzalez, “a very slow process,” but he says reconnecting with old friends and returning to college helped him adjust. Even so, it was not easy.
“I can remember even as I’m sitting here that when anything went off, any loud bang, I would immediately hit the bed,” recalls Gonzalez.
Like many other veterans of Vietnam, Gonzalez found that many people at home did not respect him for his service as they had respected veterans of prior wars, such as the Korean War. Many people referred to him as, “a baby-killer.”
“I can remember the Korean War parade as a kid,” he says. But veterans of the Vietnam war did not receive such a welcome when they came home. As Gonzalez tells it, “Instead, I was cursed.”