Orgullo del Norte - Separating the war from the warrior

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“See those fields down there. They are not frijoles or corn, carnal. They are rice patties and we are not at home.”
— Lorenzo Flores

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Willie Salas in attempt to capture what the Vietnam War was to our sons, brothers, and fathers. In 1966 Willie didn’t go to the prom, he went to Vietnam. Willie went into the 1st Marine Division.

Once he arrived in ‘Nam, He was one of many young soldiers waiting for orders. His name was the only one called to board a chopper. As he flew alone in the chopper over the jungle, he thought to himself, “What the hell am I doing here?”

From time to time, Willie spotted his younger brother Paul who was doing recon missions. On one occasion Willie heard his name being called from a chopper, it was his brother Paul yelling, “Que estás haciendo aqui?”

I didn’t ask and Willie didn’t offer many details of his combat experience. Perhaps those details are only shared with other “brothers” of the war. He did share how the soldier was shamed by society and forgotten by our government. Willie did admit that society’s treatment of returning soldiers hurt much more than the U.S. government failure to take care of them.

It has been 45 years since Willie embarked on his first tour, but the emotions are still just under the surface. When Willie left the Marines, he threw his duffle bag in the trash. He did not want anyone to know that he served.

When I asked Mr. Salas about Felix Barela, his eyes filled with numerous emotions such as love, respect, pride, and sorrow. Felix R. Barela was from the west side of Las Vegas. He was a tough kid and even a tougher soldier. In 1966 he was ambushed in Vietnam. He was wounded twice but still managed to fight on. Felix engaged in hand-to-hand combat, killing eight. He survived being overrun by burying himself under the bodies of the opponent.

Because of the courage Felix displayed against all odds, he saved the many lives of his brothers in arms. Felix Barela received the Distinguished Service Cross (second highest honor), the Purple Heart, the Vietnam Service Medal with Bronze Star, and the Vietnam Campaign Medal.

Los Norteños know that Felix deserved the Congressional Medal of Honor. Willie Salas, along with many others, believe that Felix was passed over for the highest award because he was Chicano. Felix died in Las Vegas at the age of 38, having never received any benefits from the U.S. government. Many veterans have waited 40 years for their disability.

There were many disparities in Vietnam. West High School graduates served 12- to 13-month tours. West Point graduates served only six months. The front lines were stacked with Chicanos, African Americans, Native Americans, and poor whites from the Ozarks. These groups were disproportionately killed in Vietnam. Could this be that is some credence to the conspiracy theory of King Arthur’s Plan?  

There is nothing glamorous about war and we are just now learning that we can oppose war but still support the warrior. Willie Salas and other Veterans have vowed never to allow any soldier to go through what they went through after returning home.

There was one silver lining from Vietnam, the GI Bill. This bill allowed our returning sons to get educated. Highlands University had no idea what they were dealing with when Willie and other returning Veterans took over the campus. They took the same hill in Vietnam over a dozen times; taking over Highlands must have been a cake walk.  

Felix, Willie, Paul, and Archie Garduño along with many others came home. However, many other heroes did not. Jerry Flores is another hero that we must not forget. Every soldier from El Norte will be named and recognized in The Peoples History of El Norte.

Rock Ulibarri is a local resident and educator. He may be reached at 505-440-9776.