What I’ve Learned: Jorge Martinez on lessons from the Vietnam War

By Gurjit Kaur
Medill Reports

Vietnam War veteran Jorge Martinez, 72, recounts his experiences during and after the war.

When I was 20 years old, I got drafted — wound up in Vietnam. Uncle Sam sent me a letter of greeting: “You are hereby ordered for induction.”

There was a battle called Hamburger Hill. I had my squad. We had been on this mission for about a week. I was taking what they call point, the first man in the squad at the front of the company, being the guy negotiating the jungle. So everybody follows you. The deal was that we were supposed to alternate every day, one squad one day, another squad another day. Then we’re on the trail and Sergeant Clark, our platoon leader, tells us to stop for a mini break. I’m sitting down and this blond blue-eyed kid from New York sits next to me. A kid named Di Meola. He’s a leader for the other squad.

He says, “Well, how much time you got left.” I go, “30 days.”

I ask him, “How much time you got left?” He says, “I got 60.”

No sooner, Sergeant Clark says, “Martinez, moving out.” I turn around, I tell the sergeant, “Hey Sarge, we’ve been at point three days. We’re supposed to alternate every day.”

He tells my friend, “Di Meola, move it out.” So he gets his squad up. They walk past us. He took point. After five minutes of traveling down a bit of a canyon, he ran into an ambush and got blown away.

I had what they call “survivor’s remorse.” Had I not said anything, my buddy would have been alive. There are certain decisions you make in life and suddenly they don’t turn out good. It didn’t cripple my decision making, but it stayed in the back of my mind. You wind up talking it out with people, and you come to the realization that whether it was me or him, it would have happened.

In that same operation, there were a lot of dead “enemies” around. So we’d have to search their pockets for intelligence, maps, whatever they may have. I remember grabbing a wallet from one of the dead bodies. I’m looking through it. There’s a picture of a lady who could be his mom. A picture of a man who could be his dad. A picture of a girl who could be his wife. And I’m thinking to myself: Wow, somebody told him, “I’m the enemy.” And somebody told me, “He’s the enemy.” It didn’t make sense that people were ordering us to kill each other.

Martinez resting after a weeklong mission in Vietnam. (Courtesy of Jorge Martinez)

When I came back, the world moved beyond us. We were left behind. I was more hardheaded, more stubborn, more “Don’t get in my face.”

In Vietnam, we would say, “I’m going back to the world.” Vietnam is not real. It’s a dream. It’s a horror movie. Whereas the world is back home, you know? So trying to get readjusted to the way people spoke, dressed, talked, ate, danced — it took time.

You think about these experiences you went through. The people that you personally either knew were killed, or you saw killed. So you do need a visit from Veterans Affairs or something. I don’t remember seeing any letters or anything that said, “If you need help, this is a number you can contact.” When astronauts come back from space, they get a few days to readjust back into the earth’s situation. They’re being taken care of during that time. Their health is being monitored. Their mindset is being monitored also. Well, that’s what veterans need. And there is no such thing. You leave the military, and you’re on your own.

When I was in the military, I was a legal resident. Years later, before I became a citizen, I wrote a letter to Immigration Services. One of the questions to become a citizen is, “Will you take up arms in defense of the country?”

I wrote, letting them know in my past I served this country honorably; I did what was expected of me. But from this point on, neither will I bear arms for this country, nor will I bear arms for any other country.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo at top: Decades later, Jorge Martinez believes the Department of Veterans Affairs needed to do a better job of helping veterans adjust to life after war. (Courtesy of Jorge Martinez)