What we now celebrate as Veteran’s Day, began as Armistice Day, which was observed to mark the end of World War I.
The date recalls that on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 — exactly 98 years ago this morning — the signing of the Treaty of Versailles ended the so-called War to End All Wars. It wasn’t then known as World War I, because nobody dared imagine a second was possible.
The observance more recently has been held to honor military service, during war and peace and no matter whether or not it involved combat.
This week, members of Galveston’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 880, the sixth-oldest in Texas, shared memories of their time in service and sacrifices made for their nation.
Among them was 91-year-old D.J. Crainer, a lifelong Galvestonian who served in World War II, maintaining and safeguarding Army supply trains in what then was the territory of Alaska, deemed a bulwark against potential Pacific invaders.
The youngest was Michael Caballero, 42, who served six tours of duty with the Army, four of them in Afghanistan, before mustering out after 23 years of service.
They were joined by seven who served in the Vietnam era, one of whom, Army combat medic Pete Tovar Jr., 69, had been awarded a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars, for valor in combat, but that isn’t something he brings up. It was mentioned by one of the others only after Tovar had left the room.
Help at sea
The veterans’ memories recount acts of humanity and of valor.
Post Commander Dean Growcock, 57, served in the Navy after the Vietnam War had ended.
“I went in the Navy in 1977 and got out in ‘84,” he said, and recalled a patrol off the coast of Southeast Asia. “In December 1980, we rescued 262 Vietnam refugees. I went to a reunion with some of them in Maryland in December 2012, and it was joyous all around.
“On another occasion, we rescued 24 more, of whom 20 survived. I remember a burial at sea for those who didn’t make it.”
The refugees were among those fleeing the communist regime that took control of Vietnam after the calamitous war.
It was a war Amacio Leyva remembers all too well.
“I saw a lot of my buddies get blown up when we were fighting up north,” the 67-year-old Marine said. “We did a lot of search-and-destroy missions.
“We’d be sent out on patrols to see if we would draw fire, draw the NVA out,” Leyva recounted, referring to the North Vietnamese Army. “We’d go out on patrols for a few weeks at a time, carrying everything we needed.”
Everything needed for survival
“When we went out on patrol, we’d stay out in the jungle 15 or 20 days,” said Army veteran Fernando “Penny” Perez, 67, the post’s senior vice president. “Our canteens and food alone weighed 60 pounds.”
He had quickly been introduced to his new reality.
“I went into the Army in 1969, and was shipped to Bien Boa, a big landing base,” Perez said. “Right before we got there, a whole platoon had been wiped out. We were their replacements.”
Such casualties proved more the rule than the exception.
“I was there in the Tet Offensive and the battle of Tam Qua, which began Dec. 10, 1967,” Tovar said.
He served from 1966 to ‘69 during some of the war’s most fierce combat, at one point with the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division.
“In a nutshell, a surveillance helicopter spotted something, an antenna, so our platoon was inserted to find out what it was, and it snowballed from there.
“It was the biggest mess you ever saw. The numbers were huge. We had 37 KIA in our company alone. After the three-day event, they counted 661 enemy KIA,” he said of those killed in action.
Tabulating the toll
Accounting for the enemy’s dead had become then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s matrix for convincing the American people that the U.S. was winning the war: the body count.
Tallying the dead often was grim duty.
“The Vietnamese had buried some of theirs, threw dirt on them really, and this was back when they wanted the body count, so we had to dig them up,” Tovar said. “To this day I call still smell it.”
“That stench, you never forget it,” Perez agreed.
The enemy body count eventually became impossible to keep up with; estimates exceed 1 million dead Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army regulars and irregulars.
The U.S. toll — including those missing in action and now listed as dead — was more precisely recorded: 58,220.
Air Force veteran Vernon Anderson, 73, served in Vietnam with the 635th Security Police Squadron K-9, training dogs — German shepherds and Doberman pinschers, for the most part — to secure base perimeters, to scout, detect mines and track enemy units.
“I went in ‘62 as a dog handler and got out in ‘82,” Anderson said. “It was something you volunteered for.”
He recounted one instance in which one of his dogs growlingly refused to let a grunt pass it on a trail; there troops discovered a buried mine, undetected but by the dog’s nose.
“The 4,000 dogs that served in Vietnam are credited with keeping 10,000 more names off the Vietnam Memorial,” Anderson said. “About 2,800 dogs over there were declared surplus equipment. At that time the military wouldn’t adopt the dogs out. They just abandoned them.”
A closing shot
Eventually, the Vietnam War did come to an end, but not before a final outbreak of violence.
“I was there from February 1972 to February 1973 and was there for the last shootout after they agreed to the peace treaty,” Air Force veteran Amador “A.J.” Briones Jr., 66, said of the armistice brought about by the Paris Peace Accords; the cease fire was to go into effect on Jan. 28, 1973, at 8 a.m., Saigon time.
“The night before we were celebrating, but I had a sneaking feeling we were going to come under rocket fire, and, sure enough, we did at 6 a.m. that morning,” Briones said. “It was the longest two hours of my life, and then, at five minutes to eight, it stopped just like that. The final month after that day was a relief, although we kept our guard up.”
Yet, hostilities continue elsewhere, and continue to draw in U.S. forces.
“I deployed with some of the greatest warriors I’ve ever met, Green Berets,” Caballero, the youngest of the veterans, said of his four deployments to Afghanistan. One of those was Robert J. Miller, who posthumously was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2010.
“I knew him for two years before he was killed in action,” Caballero said. “When he passed away, I was on radio watch. I remember I was just coming off my shift when I heard.”
Today, Caballero volunteers at the Gulf Coast Center, serving as a mentor for returning veterans attempting to navigate the labyrinth that is the Veterans Affairs.
“It took me a year to get my benefits, and I want to make sure these guys don’t have to fight the system like I did,” he said.
“Veterans look out for one another.”