Growing up in Scottsbluff, Marty Ramirez worked in beet fields with his family. At the age of 9, his duties began as a water carrier before his father taught him how to use a hoe. From his experience harvesting beets, he learned the importance of work ethic and respect for his family and authority, which helped him during his service in the Vietnam War.
Ramirez served in the Army’s 199th Light Infantry Brigade from 1968 to 1969 after being drafted out of college. The brigade later became known as the SWAT team of Vietnam. Ramirez, a 1967 Chadron State College alumnus, was drafted and married all in the same year. Still enjoying being a newlywed, Ramirez had been married for two months before packing his bags for war.
He traveled around the United States for his trainings. His journey began in Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, for basic training.
“I said, ‘Mom, you ought to see all the Mexicans down here, not knowing that El Paso was 99.9% Mexicans,’” he said.
He was then transferred to Fort Polk, Louisiana, for advanced individual training (AIT). Again, the exposure to different cultures surprised him.
“It was a culture shock, let alone a military shock,” he said.
Throughout his time at both training basis, Ramirez learned about different cultures. He said completing his trainings were easier because of his upbringing.
“It wasn’t hard for us because you have to understand, in our culture, you take orders, you respect authority like our priest and our family, so that didn’t bother me,” Ramirez said. “I was already used to taking orders and respecting the orders.”
As he prepared to go to Vietnam, he said his time growing up in the valley the reality of fighting a war was not something people discussed.
“So, in 1967, we’re in Nebraska,” he said. “The amazing part for me was I knew I was going to Vietnam, but I never learned about going into war. War wasn’t a big thing in Nebraska. I just knew I was going to Vietnam.”
His calls that perception a blessing in disguise looking back on his service.
SERVING IN BIEN HOA
Once he completed basic training, he was sent overseas to Saigon with his infantry where he served around the city of Bien Hoa, a city in the Dong Nai Province in Vietnam.
Every Sunday, the soldiers would check the Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) list. There were 12 to 14 support companies for the fighting man, known as 11 Bravo. Seeing men in his company walk back with their heads low one Sunday afternoon, Ramirez decided to get up and see what MOS was listed behind his name.
“They all come in with their heads low and I’m thinking, ‘They all got 11 Bravo,’” he said. “So, I go down and behind Marty Ramirez is 11 Bravo.”
Holding his head down as he walked back into his camp, he informed his comrades he was assigned 11 Bravo. They were mad at him as many soldiers wanted to go into the jungle and fight the enemy. Now, Ramirez had to learn how to fight for 11H, which required him to operate a 106 cannon on a Jeep. Throughout his training, his commanding officer informed the soldiers they were not going to fight, but Ramirez quickly learned that was about to change when he landed on the war front. Informing the sergeant they were told they were military police, the sergeant told the soldiers that was not the case.
“That’s when I said, ‘Oh, my.’ That’s when it really hit me that we’re going to fight,” he said.
DYING ALMOST NINE TIMES
The Tet Offensive had just begun and hundreds of soldiers were being killed weekly. With the reality of war surrounding him, Ramirez wrote a letter home to his wife saying he didn’t think he’d make it back. He was almost right as he says he was almost killed nine times.
His first time out, he was given the radio. Unbeknownst to Ramirez, the soldier in charge of the radio was second in line to be killed in war and the chances of survival were slim to zero.
“You’re second in line behind the head guy and the dog,” he said. “Communications is you kill a dog and you kill the radio man. That’s who the enemy is after.”
With the radio strapped on his uniform, they headed into the jungle, about the size of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus. They knew the enemy had just gone through that area when Ramirez noticed the water they walked through was boiling. Pausing for a moment to look at the water, Ramirez heard a loud blast and looked up to see a bomb had just gone off in front of him. The blast killed nine soldiers, but Ramirez credits his curiosity for saving him that time.
As bullets start flying, the troops fired at the enemy before going to gather the bodies of their fallen comrades. Once the fire ceased, they rested when Ramirez noticed a large crater the size of a pond.
“Everything is in shockingly awe,” he said. “What’s a bomb? Not knowing until now they were dropping Agent Orange.”
When a battle broke out, the 199th brigade would load up into helicopters before the behind dropped off at the sight. But the soldiers had to jump out of the helicopter, since the pilot didn’t land.
“One guy pushed me and said, ‘Don’t you ever wait. You have to jump out because they’re shooting at you,’” Ramirez said.
Within the course of a week, he came close to death multiple times. The first night, Ramirez was sent out to protect the perimeter around the base camp when he was overrun in a cemetery. As the sound of bombs exploding echo around him, he saw what looked like ants fleeing the area. He woke up a soldier next to him and the guy grabbed his gun and started shooting.
“Now they know where we’re at,” he said. “We were overrun. We’re surrounded, but they’re not concerned about us. They’re concerned about the bombs.”
Hiding in a cemetery, Ramirez was able to escape the enemy. The next morning, still in the cemetery, he continued to scan the area when a big bomb almost hit him. A couple days later, he was sent out on patrol at night. As he walked along a road around the camp, he knew no one was supposed to be out at night. Then he saw a dark figure walking toward him.
“Me and this one guy are on guard. Some Vietnamese soldier sneaks across our camp and begins to walk toward us,” he said. “In my mind I’m like, ‘Nobody is supposed to be out at night. Who could that be?’”
When the two come within 50 feet of each other, the Vietnamese soldier saw Ramirez.
“We have like a John Wayne shoot out,” he said. “We shoot at the same time.”
After calling in to the command center, they tell Ramirez to figure out if the guy is dead. Walking up the road for what seemed like an eternity, Ramirez started to worry that the soldier was alive. As he crossed the road, he said he saw the move and he fired, killing him.
“That’s just the way war is,” he said. “You see dead bodies and I just keep doing my job.”
During another battle, Ramirez prepared to jump out of the helicopter, knowing how last time he was pushed out. As he jumps to the ground, he realizes nothing is in his hands.
“We’re out there and we’re getting hit, so we jump and ‘Where’s my rifle? Somebody stole my rifle.’ That’s a panic.”
As his tour neared a close, Ramirez was wounded. It was ten days before he was supposed to go home.
Guarding ammunition underneath a bridge, Ramirez thought, “Boy, if we ever get hit, it’s going to be the Fourth of July.”
As he dozed off to get some rest, he awoke to the sound of explosions.
“I don’t even remember tying my shoes,” he said. “I just knew I needed to get to the top of the bridge.”
Climbing the stairway 50 feet into the air in the darkness, Ramirez reached for the next step before his perspective changed. Opening his eyes, he found himself on the ground. He suffered injuries to his side, back and legs, so he yelled for a medic.
“‘Well, Marty, you were yelling my leg, my leg,’” Ramirez recalls the medic telling him. “I reached behind your leg and it was like a waterfall, so I put a tourniquet on it.”
FLASHBACKS OF WAR
Ramirez believes three things saved him that day. He was 22 years old, he grew up in the barrio where he learned skills, and his belief in God.
“For what I have been through, I have never had a PTSD moment or nightmare and it’s because of those three things,” he said.
After he returned home, his attitude about his service is he did what he did and he didn’t look back. While his service was an important part of his story, his thoughts of Vietnam are fleeting moments throughout the day.
“I think about working out in the garden and I realize how hot it was,” he said. “The heat and just things that remind me of the jungles causes flashbacks.”
While Ramirez did not believe he saw much action during his one year in Vietnam, he realized his upbringing and faith helped him escape through the perils of war.