From the VETERANS series:
Tony Velez, Henry Velez , Paul Velez
Tony and Henry Velez both served in Vietnam. When their younger brother Paul was drafted, Tony and Henry arranged for him to avoid the Vietnam War. Paul was assigned to work in Zirndorf, Germany. The three Velez brothers are Puerto Rican, and grew up in the East New York Cypress Hills housing projects. The Velez father, Candido Velez had served in the army for six years in WWII. He worked as a cook to support the family. The Velez’ mother, Enriqueta Vazquez, was a seamstress.
Vietnam, U.S. Army,11th Armored Cavalry Regiment
Dates of service: 1966-67
[Tony Velez is a noted photographer of social justice themes, such as Vietnam, Puerto Rican families, old New York. He teaches in the Fine Arts Dept. at Keane University in Union, New Jersey.
Tony was interviewed by Nina Talbot at her studio in Flatbush, Brooklyn on June 4, 2011.]
“Racism played a big role in my growing up.”
June 4, 2011
“Racism played a big role in my growing up. I remember getting bullied in the Brooklyn Cypress Hills projects. I was always trying to be the best I could, although that was hard to do. There was resentment of blacks and Puerto Ricans. We kept our distance from the gangs in the projects. Kids in school said ugly things - I was more outspoken and challenging. I originally came from the South Bronx, from the same neighborhood as the famous police precinct dubbed ‘Fort Apache’.
“I signed up for Vietnam despite my parents’ objections. I enlisted at Whitehall Street in December 1965, the day before my nineteenth birthday. They mailed you a one-way trip token, and gave an exam in a tall ancient building, filled with naked eighteen year old guys.
“I took a train from Penn Station to Fort Jackson, South Carolina where there was basic training for two months, got my hair cut right away, three days of inoculations, uniform, written IQ tests, and then they figured out where to put you. From there, I went to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where I attended engineering school for six months, and learned to read electrical and gas schematics. My MOS (military occupational specialty) was power man - I provided power to a fort, to a camp, army instation, dismantled and put together gas generators, hook ups to communication, tools, missile bases, base camp.
“Going to Vietnam was another reality; booze and soldier stories on the ship going in country. In Nam we passed a junkyard of destroyed American vehicles, crashed jets, crumbled duffel bags, rifles. I remember seeing a Vietnamese longshoreman squatting on a ship. There were trucks at Vung Tao, Bien Hoa, military bases. It was hot and muggy; we drank beer and ate snacks from the PX (post exchange). M-60 ra-ta-ta-ta sounds in the jungle - Welcome to Vietnam.”
“Vung Tao - beach landing- flown to Tay Ninh -11th Armored Cavalry Regiment- Black Horse Regiment, Xuan Loc base camp - I built it. Eight miles south of town there was the Michelin rubber plantation. In my regiment there were one-hundred-and-sixty vehicles, tanks, support artillery. There was an incident with my sergeant: I went after him with a machete during an altercation and because of that I was put on guard duty at Bien Hoa for two months during the January and February monsoon season.
“Bien Hoa was Vietnam’s largest military base during the war. It was an ammunition dump containing extensive C-4 plastic explosives, claymores, and burning bennies (small grenades that bounced like silly putty). The place was a booby trap. I was scared for my life there and managed to get my buddies to get me out. I had them complain that they needed me back to Xuan Loc base camp for engineering operations. I was then in the field from mission to mission for the next eight months. My regiment would
circle in the jungles. At night we dug foxholes to sleep in, covered with ponchos. Our cavalry was frequently ambushed and mortared. We never felt safe, didn’t know when we’d get hit.
“There was a convoy going towards Lei Khe. Troop1 came with a big tank,16 ton diesel trecks, 5 apc (armored personnel carrier), drivers, radio man, and three gunners with 60 caliber machine guns each. I was in an unarmored truck with a buddy. There was an explosion behind our truck. Me and my buddy ran back to see what was going on; a soldier was tossing boxes off a truck, flares; it was an explosion in a village we had passed.
In mid July we had a new mission in a new area up North. I was driving behind a 5,000 lb. fuel tanker en route during dry season. We lost fourteen guys and100 VC (Viet Cong) were killed in an ambush. Our convoy drove over burning bodies, the stench of blood, torsos cut in half, the road littered with body parts.
“After Vietnam, in Morristown, New Jersey two hundred and fifty Vietnam vets belonging to the newly formed Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) took part in Operation RAW (Rapid American Withdrawal) with Senator Kerry and Nurses for Peace. In a peaceful demonstration, we walked a hundred miles along Route 202 to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, following George Washington’s path of retreat from the British during the Revolutionary War. We slept in a Quaker cemetery, and walked through cow pastures. Donald Sutherland, Jane Fonda, and other celebrities and disabled vets all came together at the Valley Forge VA hospital, where a makeshift platform was set up. Crippled veterans came with crutches. Local American Legion members came and challenged the Nam vets, calling them traitors, waving American flags yelling at the vets, drinking beer, smoking. It took me awhile to figure out the politics of the war.”
Henry Velez, MD
Vietnam, U.S. Army, 2nd Battalion, 39th Infantry, 9th Infantry Division, B Company
Dates of service:1968-70
[Henry Velez was interviewed by Nina Talbot in New Jersey on July 10, 2011.]
“Most vets went back to the same thing they came from- no plans, no evidence of growth- if the war doesn’t change you, what will?”
“We were poor kids. I was always an overachiever, fascinated by every aspect of life. Each chapter in my life appeared as a series of challenges. Growing up, I was always reading on my own.”
I was drafted and inducted into the Army at Ft. Hamilton, Brooklyn, NY, and then shipped out to Ft. Jackson, South Carolina for basic training. I felt the pain of separation from my family combined with a “what’s next?” excitement. I was put on a Boeing “Yellow Bird” 707 which was my first time on an airplane. At the start of basic training I weighed 194 pounds and was 67 inches tall. I was very good with a rifle, but could not run [too fat]. Then I went to Ft. Gordon, Georgia for ten weeks for AIT [advanced infantry training]. I lost 60 pounds, and suffered from sleep deprivation. Six months after entering the Army my MOS [military occupational specialty] was 11B/Rifleman, also known as the Infantry. I was then flown to Ben Hua Air Force Base in Vietnam via California and Alaska. I was assigned to the 9th infantry division, and dispatched to Fire Support Base Rakh Kinh, about 20 miles southwest of Saigon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 39th Infantry.
“A week later, I experienced my first firefight. As we circled overhead in our Huey helicopters the battleground appeared surreal. There were F4 Phantom Jets dropping 500 lb. bombs and Napalm. Puff the Magic Dragon was a DC3 airplane half filled with mini guns spewing 10,000 bullets per minute into the wood line where the enemy was entrenched. Cobra attack helicopters fired rockets and cannons. Of course, there was the incessant sustained bombardment with artillery. When deemed the right time our helicopters descended inserting a bunch of twenty year olds in front of the enemy and under heavy fire. After finding cover, I said to myself “If I was in college I would not be here, for now just stay alive.”
“Sometime later in another encounter we surrounded a North Vietnamese Army [NVA] battalion. In their desperation and in the early morning hours they attempted to break through our defenses. As they came towards Fish and I, we defended our position with every ounce of ammo which we carried, forcing them to our flanks. When the sun rose, the field in front of us was littered with dead NVA.
“On August 27th, we ran into them again. Advancing on a wood line, a sniper took Roy Register, our platoon sergeant. The bullets were dropping into the rice paddies like huge raindrops. We were ordered to retreat. After finding safety the word came down that Lt. Gruno was hit and still out there. Next to me was Fred Benson. Without regard for myself, I said “let us go get him.” I crawled out in the pitch dark and found Gruno with his left leg shattered by a machine gun bullet. Benson and our medic named Bangert joined us. Painstakingly and while evading enemy fire we dragged him back to safety, inch by inch.
“Shortly thereafter a Medivac arrived and Gruno was taken to a field hospital in Saigon. Forty two years later by serendipity we reunited. He retired from finance, walked with a pronounced limp, and me a practicing physician. The next morning I found Register face down in the mud with a prominent bullet wound over the bridge of his nose. For me the events of that evening were to become one of the defining moments of my life. That night, Fish whom with me two weeks earlier repelled a ground attack on our position was also killed in action. In January of 1969 Bangert was also killed in action. Fred sometime later was wounded to the point where he went home and never returned. Again serendipity led me to Fred; today we are friends and brothers.
“Vietnam meant staying alive. I hated the army, but I was good soldier. I was awarded a medal for pulling back Gruno. I also received the Combat Infantry Badge [CIB], and numerous additional citations.
“In July of 1969 I left Vietnam. In January of 1970 I was honorably discharged from active service. Shortly thereafter I attended Community College at night while I worked full time. Then I transferred to Brooklyn College and entered Medical School in July 1973, graduating in July of 1976. I also became an activist and protested the war with VVAW [Vietnam Veterans Against the War]. Today, I counsel Vets for PTSD and VA related benefits. I also attend the 9th Infantry Division biannual Labor Day reunion. I am fortunate that I am still in touch with about eight of my brothers with whom I served.
“Again “Most vets went back to same s*** they came from, no plans, no evidence of growth, if the war doesn’t change you, what will?”
U.S. Army,101st Maintenance Battalion
Dates of service: 1969-1971
Paul Velez was interviewed in Wyckoff, New Jersey on July 10, 2011.]
“I was trying to find my way in life with a heightened sensitivity.”
July 10, 2011
“The backdrop of my childhood was the South Bronx followed by the Cypress Hills housing project in Brooklyn, NY. My maternal grandmother Amelia, was from a first generation of farmers in Puerto Rico. She lived to ninety five years old and came to New York as did her family a bit later, on the Tiger ships (a trade name for the SS Marine Tiger. It was one of the largest passenger ships, capable of carrying more than one thousand passengers per voyage, more if you count the stowaways. The SS Marine Tiger was one of the last passenger ships to operate between San Juan and New York). Amelia, left ten kids behind in the hands of extended family members, seeking a better life for them all. Including my mother, Enriqueta. Amelia worked in New York City hotel laundries. Her promise and vision was to work and save money sufficient to bring all her children to New York to be together. Over some time and singlehandedly, she accomplished her goal and vision by having all her children together in New York. She was one of the early Puerto Rican ‘pioneras ‘ (pioneers) to leave an agrarian society and re-establish herself and family in urban New York. My upbringing was a disadvantaged one that was overlaid with strong values of independence and feelings of nationalism. Our family took pride in values of self-responsibility and family honor. My father was a WWII vet, having served for six years.
“I am politically conscious, with a heightened sensitivity towards life. It’s important to me to understand history and politics. I bless my family for stressing the importance of doing good work in service jobs, as many immigrant families have before in New York City history. My parents were always trying to improve their lives and that of their children.
“Following my brothers’ Tony and Henry’s military paths, I was waiting to be drafted. I worked many jobs during high school. My uncle had a bodega where I worked as a stock and delivery boy. I also worked in a supermarket, a mail room, a pharmacy, and at the main New York public library on 42nd Street, NYC. My job as a Page at the library was a precursor to the military in terms of trying to find my way in life. I worked in the Prints division, next to the Rare Books and Art and Architecture divisions. Subsequently, right after graduating high school, I worked for Sears Roebuck and Company, in their Traffic department, at their then east coast fashion buying office on the West side of Manhattan.
“I served in the military from September of 1969 until July of 1971. I went to boot camp at Ft. Gordon, Georgia, and learned my MOS at Ft. Riley, Kansas, which was also a base camp for returning vets from Vietnam. My father was in the hospital with cancer during this time, and my mother was also hospitalized in failing health. I was able to be reassigned to white collar work, due to my learned skill in typing on typewriters, and then transferred to Zirndorf, Germany, to work under an approved
“Compassionate Reassignment” category; as our family already had two sons in the war. I recall seeing many remnants of WWII memorials in Zirndorf. Following the completion of my tour of duty, I immediately entered into college and earned a BA degree in Sociology, later followed by an MS degree in Health Care Systems Management. I developed a career in the health care industry where I have remained steadfast in being part of the industry’s evolving changes to date.”