Are we at our craziest when we are at war?
That question caused much reflection for Gavino Saldivar as he continues to process war and his service in Vietnam.
Saldivar was a recent Scottsbluff High School graduate, from the Class of 1963, and was preparing for the next chapter of his life. After a year of driving trucks, he received word he was close to being drafted. Knowing the Navy had better training than the Army, he decided to enlist in March 1967.
“When I knew I was going to be drafted, I said, ‘No, I don’t want to do that. I’m going to join the Navy.’ I also thought then I don’t have to go to Vietnam.”
Fate would have it that Saldivar would serve in Vietnam.
TRAINING FOR WAR
After taking an airplane from Scottsbluff, Nebraska, to San Diego, California, he completed four months of boot camp. Once the bus pulled up and the recruits exited, they were greeted by a Naval officer. Saldivar recalled how the officer said, “OK you bunch of sissy girls, get off the bus. My name is Officer Smith and my job is to make men out of you girls.”
At first, Saldivar became overwhelmed with fear of failing, but was upset about the officer’s remarks toward them.
During the training, the officer challenged the recruits’ mental and physical strength, even challenging them to overcome their fears, which for Saldivar was heights. As members of the Navy, they learned how to jump from extreme heights as if it was from a ship and how to make a flotation device out of their dungarees.
“They took us to a swimming pool with very high diving boards and made us jump from the highest board,” Saldivar said. “That was scary enough, especially for someone who is afraid of heights, but I told myself I only had to do it once, so I threw myself off.”
While submerged in the pool, Saldivar felt something push him back down. The officer was using a pole to push him back under the water several times before allowing him to come up for air. Despite the officer’s best intentions to prepare the recruits for the battlefront, being in that situation reminded Saldivar of his childhood.
“Being raised in my early years in an alcoholic family environment, I was taught not to feel,” he said. “Even though I didn’t show it much, I was proud of myself for passing all the tests thus far.”
After successfully completing boot camp, Saldivar moved on to training for his job as a communications specialist and counter-insurgency training before he got his orders to head to Vietnam. During the two week training, he learned how to evade the enemy if they became lost in the woods and soldiers should stick together because it increased their chances of survival.
SERVING IN VIETNAM
Once he finished training, he was furloughed for two weeks before he headed to war as a communications specialist. He would be in country from March 1968 through March 1969.
As the plane prepared to land in Da Nang, Vietnam, the officers told the soldiers if they land under fire, they will run for cover. With a guardian angel watching over Saldivar, they landed and got to base safely.
Saldivar walked down into a bunker surrounded by a wall of sand bags every day to complete his duties. At his desk sat a teletype machine used to transmit messages.
“This one it will go over the air,” he said. “It’s sort of like a precursor to computers.”
Saldivar was tasked with communicating with ship captains and helicopter pilots about soldiers’ health. He relayed the number of injured and burnt soldiers to triage, so they could prepare to help them, and dead soldiers. As he worked for 12 hours, he would have several encounters and experiences that would cause him to have out-of-body experiences.
OUT OF BODY EXPERIENCES
Throughout his time in country, Saldivar saw several missiles fly through the air and hit targets around him. Following one strike, he came out of his bunker to see a Vietnamese woman walking down the sidewalk.
“This Vietnamese woman was walking on the sidewalk and she was hysterical,” he said. “She wouldn’t move and I was right there by the door of our shelter that we were supposed to go into.” As he waited for the woman to go into the shelter with him, he said she was frozen in her place. Saldivar stood looking at the woman and was unsure how to handle the situation, but his mind and body did what it needed to do.
“I just grabbed her and put her inside,” he said. “I suspect she experienced a lot of trauma from where she was from.”
During his time in the shelter, he radioed between ships and airplanes and the hospital. One night, just as his shift was ending, he radioed in a plane that was bringing soldiers to triage. Once he had communicated with both parties, he grabbed his belongings and walked along the wooden sidewalk headed back to his barracks. As he walked past triage, he looked over and saw a soldier looking back at him.
“I looked over at the triage and there was this soldier on a stretcher and his jaw had been blown off and his tongue was just hanging there,” Saldivar said. “His eyes were big and I felt like he was trying to tell me ‘Help me.’”
Not having any training or right to help, Saldivar just watched as the nurses tended to other soldiers who were bleeding and the soldier sit there waiting his turn. Then, an officer called out for Saldivar’s help.
Following him to a helicopter that had just landed, Saldivar climbed into the helicopter as he was asked to help a fellow soldier remove the bodies from a helicopter and move them into a refrigeration unit for the next hour and a half. With the lighting poor in the dark of night, Saldivar lifted a body indicated by the other soldier onto the stretcher. As he lifted the leg onto the stretcher, he realized part of it was missing.
“That was bad,” he said. “When I was helping with the bodies, the guy that I was helping said, ‘We will would put this body on a stretcher and that’s his boot over there.’”
Turning around, Saldivar reached for the boot to find the soldier’s foot and leg was still inside.
“I went into a trance at that moment and I went out of my body,” he said. “I kept doing what I was doing because your body, I think, has a mind of it’s own or knows what to do to survive or to keep on surviving.”
From that point on, Saldivar could not feel his body and the two soldiers worked in silence moving bodies into the refrigerator. Once the helicopter was empty, Saldivar headed back to the barracks to lie in his bed. Starring at the ceiling, he couldn’t get the images of the young soldier without a jaw and foot in the boot out of his mind.
GOING TO CUA VIET
Throughout his time in country, Saldivar began arguing against the war to the point where he got into heated exchanges with other soldiers before becoming introverted around others. After arriving in Cua Viet, he had to carry his rifle everywhere, including in the communications bunker. As Saldivar struggled with the reasons for war and the suffering of lives, he got into a heated exchange with a sailor.
“I realized I was doing what I had told myself I didn’t want to do, that is, argue about the war,” he said. “I tried to figure out how to stop.”
In an attempt to end the argument, he looked away from the soldier, but happened to glance at his rifle. The other soldier noticed and confronted Saldivar, who remained silent. From that moment on, he stopped protesting the war and internalized his feelings. His only friend was a mutt that gave birth to puppies.
Once his tour was over, he said the day he left Vietnam came with a funny feeling.
“I never wanted to see the place again, yet it felt like I was leaving something behind and I felt a little nostalgic,” he said.
After his service ended in March 1969, he returned to Scottsbluff and became a therapist. Knowing how holding information inside can cause people to experience anxiety, he decided to write about Vietnam.
With a unique perspective on war, Saldivar struggled with the reasons for war, but believes to look at reality the way it is, the craziness within it can be changed.