Joe Perez was starting his life with his family in October 1969, but to honor his family and fulfill his duty to his country, he left Scottsbluff to fight in the Vietnam War.
DRAFTED FOR VIETNAM
At the age of 24, Perez had just graduated from Chadron State College and was excited to welcome his son. As a Scottsbluff High School alumnus from the Class of 1963, he returned to the valley with his family. After receiving his draft letter in the mail, he knew his time with his newborn son would be short.
“We talked about an induced labor, so I could be here,” Perez said. “He was born at 8 a.m. We christened him at noon and at 4 p.m. that afternoon, I was on the bus to Denver.”
Perez traveled to the Denver Enlistment Center before he was sworn in to the U.S. Army. He then traveled to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to complete basic training. He completed more training at Fort Polk, Louisiana, where he completed OGT, on-the-job training, as a personnel specialist. During his time completing OGT, Perez received his orders to go to Vietnam.
RECORDS KEEPER IN VIETNAM
Boarding an airplane at the Fort Lewis military facility near Tacoma, Washington, Master Sgt. Perez and the rest of his company flew to Cam Ranh Bay in South Vietnam.
“From Cam Ranh Bay, I was just in country a couple of day and was transferred to Da Nang, Vietnam, where I was assigned as a personnel records specialist.”
He was in charge of the personnel records for two companies, which included around 250 soldiers. He updated their medical information, promotion, station changes and insurance papers.
While stationed in Da Nang, Perez would communicate with soldiers in companies across Vietnam.
“I was personally responsible for individual records, which I was proud to do,” he said.
While he was responsible for updating each soldier’s record, he knew when something happened because his section supervisor would come.
“I was sad when my section supervisor would come to me and ask for the record of a soldier,” he said.
Being in charge of the records, Perez had to know who he gave the records to and document that information unless the soldier died.
Names of soldiers floated inside his mind of the men who had died in action. While his supervisor never told Perez a soldier died, he said that was part of the war, justing knowing the outcome without being told.
“When he (my supervisor) would come to me and say, ‘Joe you don’t need to know that. That is no longer your responsibility,’” Perez said with a sigh.
MANNING THE PARAMETER
As well as serving as a personnel specialist, Perez would also be put on guard duty as a parameter guard.
One night, as he sat in a guard tower, Perez experienced his worst moment in the war. Looking out into the trees surrounding the base, he saw silhouettes dancing in and out of the moonlight. As his fellow comrades in the towers wanted to open fire, they quickly were told to not shoot.
“My guard toward companions wanted to open fire with out machine guns on these silhouettes, so I used the land line,” he said. “Tower 21. Tower 21. Requesting permission to fire.” After a short pause, a voice came over the radio informing them the silhouettes were U.S. Marines.
“When you’re looking out and you don’t know what’s out there, but higher ups know what’s going on around you, those are the uncertainties and anxieties of post-traumatic trauma that goes on in soldiers’ heads,” he said.
Aside from the dark figures moving through the shadows, soldiers also dealt with rockets hitting the compound.
“Boom. boom. boom. We’d have to get up out of bed and run to the arms room and get our weapons to set up parameter guard,” Perez said. “That was pretty regular, so you were really constantly fatigued and had a lack of sleep.”
With the constant fight to protect the compound and maintain records, Perez said the support from family sustained him.
“Growing up in the barrio, in the Scottsbluff barrio in southeast Scottsbluff, our faith and our religion was really important to us and we know that the prayers of our family members sustained us during war,” he said.
Still, his service would put him through situations of sensory overload as the sights, smells and feelings of the turmoil surrounded him.
“I saw helicopters shot down and we had to go in and rescue the bodies and the wounds that you saw,” he said. “There was so much human suffering.”
In the midst of combat, soldiers were told to fire more times than the enemy, even if it wasn’t clear what direction the enemy was coming.
“It’s terrible when, all the sudden, you hear trrr (gun shots) and you don’t know where it’s coming from,” he said. “One part of war is you put out more ammo than what’s coming in, so everybody opens up, trrr (gun shots). You spray the tree. You spray everything.”
Once it’s over, Perez said the smell is bad as the gunpowder floats through the air, making breathing hard.
COUNTING TO D.O.R.U.S.
After 11 months and 17 days in country, Perez was counting until D.O.R.U.S., Date of Return to U.S.
Boarding the airplane back to Washington, he sat on the plane praying to make it home, safely.
“You leave on an airplane from South Vietnam and you don’t take a breath until you’re out of range,” he said. “You’re still in the theater of combat, so you’re sitting there praying and say, ‘I’m leaving, but I’m still not home.’”
The war took a toll on Perez personally and in his relationships as his ability to socialize became a struggle. For many years, he struggled sharing his experience in Vietnam with others because he saw social and racial injustices toward Vietnam soldiers and their families.
Still, he is proud to have served his country and honored his grandparents, father and uncle who served before him.
Although Perez says his role maintaining personnel files and protecting the perimeter makes him a survivor, not a hero, he hopes his story will be “inspiring (for) the young Latinos and young citizens (to know), especially the young Latinos that there have been forefathers (who fought) that they are Americans and we are one country,” he said. “I hope my experience helps us unite as a country and see that we’re all Americans and we all have the same red blood, despite our political differences.”