Santiago Vasquez of Roswell displays one of the two Bronze Medals he won during his service in the Vietnam War. Today, Vasquez is very active with the American Legion and an advocate for veterans groups. (Randal Seyler Photo)
Vietnam War veteran Santiago Vasquez is active in numerous veterans organizations today, but that wasn’t always the case.
“It wasn’t until the movie ‘Platoon’ came out that I started getting active,” says Vasquez.
While a student at Eastern New Mexico University in 1968, the Roswell native was drafted to go fight in Southeast Asia at the age of 20.
“When the movie ‘Platoon’ came out, people’s attitudes toward Vietnam and veterans began to change,” Vasquez said. “That was when I decided I wanted to become more involved with veterans organizations. Before that, I mainly just wanted to forget.”
Vasquez, 65, is now active with the American Legion, serving last year as post commander and last year, he received the state Recruiter of the Year award for being top American Legion recruiter from the state commander.
Veterans from around the area were at the Roswell American Legion post on Saturday observing Vietnam Veterans Day.
“I think it is important that we [auth] honor the memories of veterans, not only ourselves, but our fathers and these young men who are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan,” Vasquez said.
Vasquez said he was diagnosed with 100 percent disability for post-traumatic stress disorder a decade ago — although he had managed for 35 years.
“I came back, got my degree in social work with the GI Bill, had a career and raised a family,” Vasquez said. “I didn’t even know about PTSD. I think most of the veterans from my generation just wanted to come back and forget and go on with their lives.”
Vasquez came back with a box full of medals, including two Bronze Stars, one with a V for valor, and two Army Commendation Medals, both with Vs for bravery. He also earned two Air Medals for having flown at least 50 missions during his nine-month tour in Vietnam.
Vasquez served with the 9th Infantry Division, Third of the 39th Infantry in the U.S. Army. His platoon was on patrol on the Mekong Delta, looking for the enemy during the daytime and setting ambushes at night in the jungle.
“We were always on the move, flying into landing zones and out, and everything was wet,” Vasquez said. “We were always in water and mud, with leeches crawling up our legs.”
“There wasn’t a frontline or a rearline, they were all around us.” Vasquez said. “We were just always in the battle.”
Vasquez came back to Roswell and after getting his degree, began a 25-year career with the Children Youth and Families Department.
He is retired, but stays active with the Amercian Legion. He is also a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans and Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“I started the first chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America in Roswell after we hosted a premiere of the film “Platoon’ here at the Allen Theater,” Vasquez recalled. The movie, directed by Oliver Stone, was released in 1986.
Vasquez has been active with veterans organizations since the ’80s, and he is promoting the newest chapter of the American Legion, Sons of the American Legion, which is open to children of veterans.
“We want to honor the memories of our veterans, and this is a way children can honor their fathers’ service to this country,” Vasquez said. Daughters of the American Legion are also eligible to join the legion’s auxiliary organization.
“We want to work with our children as well, and teach them the meaning of patriotism, Americanism, and what the flag means,” Vasquez said. “The Sons of the American Legion allows us to branch out and bring in more members.”
Vasquez said the American Legion also wants to reach out to the young veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We want to be a resource for these young men,” he said. “We have been there and done that, so we know what they are going through and we want to be here to help them in any way we can.”
Anyone interested in joining the American Legion or the Sons of the American Legion can call Vasquez at 840-9373.
Santiago Vasquez, left, poses with fellow squad member Tom Burke, of Middleton, N.Y., while serving in the Army during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. Burke was the squad’s machine gunner, and he not only had to carry the heavy machine gun, but 500-600 rounds of ammo on every mission. All the other squad members carried an extra 200 rounds for the machine gun as well. (Courtesy Photo)