Memorializing A Veteran Of The Vietnam War

Photo courtesy: R. Andrade
Robert Andrade upon entry into Hospital Corps School at Balboa Naval Hospita, San Diego.

By Marissa Mitchell

Chino, CA – Memorial Day was on May 29, and there is none better than Robert Andrade of Ontario, California to remind us of just how significant our veterans are.

Memorial Day honors the men and women who have served in the U.S. military, particularly those who gave their lives.  Originally known as Decoration Day, it originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971.

As a hospital corpsman, Robert Andrade served actively in the Vietnam War from 1966 to 1967, saving countless lives, and also bearing witness to many deaths. The widely unpopular Vietnam War was a long conflict that pitted the communist regime of North Vietnam and its southern allies (Viet Cong), against South Vietnam and its principal ally, the United States against the backdrop of the Cold War.

Born April 19, 1947 in East Los Angeles, Robert was 17 years old when he entered the military, and had just turned 18 when he entered Vietnam. There were many 18-20 year old boys who served alongside him. As a camp officer at the Balboa Naval School, Robert learned he was “one of many.” He was assigned to the Marines and trained as a medic.

Robert entered Vietnam in 1966 in his battalion knowing he would go directly into the line of fire in his duty to save lives. He was first sent up to the DMZ – the “demilitarized zone” of the border of South and North Vietnam.

“We were in the jungles. We were in monsoon season. We saw tiger tracks….so not only were we fighting the North Vietnamese Army, but we were being tracked by tigers,” Robert recalled. There were many casualties.

As a Hospital Corpsman, Robert stated, everyone on his team was interdependent on one another: “We had a true band of brothers,” he noted, “and many of the guys didn’t make it back.”

Photo courtesy: R. Andrade
Robert Andrade at Camp Carroll, Highway 1 DMZ, Vietnam.

In one case, Robert remembers a good friend of his – just 4 days from being flown home – being sent out on a two week operation. This young African American soldier named Nelson Queen, who Robert called, “one the gentlest spirits I have ever known” died in a firefight that week.

Robert remembers those soldiers who had wives and children they had never even held dying in combat. Two men who had been born in the same small town in Texas were close to their returning date and had plans to reunite at a local cantina back in the States; both were killed by the same mortar.

Memories from war are scarring and graphic. Robert stated, “When someone is shot, they don’t fall over like in the movies. They just drop like a marionette when the strings are cut.” It is brutal.

As a medic, Robert would go up to the injured and discover where they were hit. “One thing I’m most proud of, if anything,” Robert declared,” was my contribution as a medical professional, that I was able to keep them alive until the Med Evacuation arrived by helicopter.” He then recounted how they as medics were often forced to push and even throw the injured soldiers into the helicopter with their wounds.

“The helicopter pilots were never given enough recognition for their bravery,” he stated. They went straight into the line of fire. “I never got to say thank you to those pilots,” he continued.

Every person “in country” (in Vietnam) possessed a responsibility to protect one another, to help one another. The helicopters would land and Robert and his group of hospital corpsmen would jump out; the helicopters would return during and after the firefights.

“The experience in Vietnam was true democracy – nobody was better than anyone else. We were all a living organism that supported each others’ various parts.”

According to Robert, there is no truer saying than that depicted at the Veteran’s Hospital: “All gave some, and some gave all.”

Upon returning to the United States, Robert and all who served in the war were treated with a great deal of anger and contempt from American society at large. Vietnam was not a popular war. They suffered from PTSD and were helped by the Veteran’s Association, but images and experiences had burned scars into their memories. Later on at UCLA, Robert would join the protests against the war, knowing just what occurred there.

“No one should ever have to experience war,” he stated. “I see Afghanistan and Syria at war, and it hurts so much to see the children of war who have done nothing to deserve what’s happening to them in their lives. The politicians have never put the welfare of the children in front their goals.”

Robert agrees with the saying that old men send young men to fight wars. He concluded his interview with the following statement:

“This Memorial Day, I go quietly through the day. Not that I am ashamed…It is only that I feel the pain of those family members who lost loved ones. I am reminded that death is about the living. I have visited Washington D.C. and stood before the Vietnam wall and openly cried. I have seen the traveling wall in La Habra, where my grandson held me as a cried. I pray he never has to go through anything I’ve gone through”

“War is unforgiving. And war is unnecessary.”

***More than 3 million people (including 58,000 Americans) were killed in the Vietnam War; more than half were Vietnamese civilians. By 1969, at the peak of U.S. involvement in the war, more than 500,000 U.S. military personnel were involved in the Vietnam conflict.***