US Army Veteran Returns to Vietnam, Where He Fought Some 50 Years Earlier

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A passenger train car lies in ruins after it was destroyed with a mine by the Viet Cong, near Nha Trang, South Vietnam, June 18, 1964.
A passenger train car lies in ruins after it was destroyed with a mine by the Viet Cong, near Nha Trang, South Vietnam, June 18, 1964. (Huynh Thanh My/AP Photo)

The rocket and mortar shelling started as the plane carrying Benito Gilbert Gomez and other American soldiers landed at Cam Ranh Base in Vietnam in 1968.

As the shells fell around the base and Gomez and his comrades dove onto the asphalt landing strip for cover, he thought to himself, "Welcome to Vietnam."

Gomez received a very different welcome last month when he returned to Vietnam with his son, Benito Gomez Jr., a U.S. Navy veteran who served in the 1980s and 1990s. The tour, spearheaded by the nonprofit group Vets With a Mission, is intended to bring Vietnam War veterans and their family members back to the place where they fought and saw loved ones die.

The 2 1/2 -week trip opened Gomez's eyes to what is now a prosperous and growing country where residents watched the World Series on television, listened to Johnny Cash music in bars and restaurants and ate one of the most American of American meals -- hamburgers.

It also helped him come to terms with that time in his life when, as a man in his early 20s, he prayed for just two things: to survive and to go home to New Mexico.

The U.S. Army infantryman and radio operator, drafted in 1966, saw death and destruction around him during his one-year tour as America tried to hold its sometimes tenuous ground in a faraway nation many people probably had never heard of a few years earlier.

"It's hard to go from [being] a farmer to combat, to do what you actually have to do to survive," said Gomez, sitting in the dining area of his home in Pojoaque, just a house or two down the street from the one he was born in 77 years ago.

"I went for my country. They asked me to go. I went," he said, poring over two scrapbooks of Polaroid photos he took during his one-year tour at the Cu Chi Base Camp, known for an extensive network of tunnels created by the Viet Cong to harass American and South Vietnamese troops in the region surrounding what was then known as Saigon.

Gomez remembers those tunnels as dark harbors where the enemy could hide and plan strikes.

"They lived in tunnels like rats and popped out from anywhere," Gomez recalled of the Viet Cong soldiers.

Like so many who lived and fought through that war, Gomez came back a changed man, he and his wife, Veronica Gomez, say. There were nights he would wake up sweating and screaming, fighting demons from his past in his nightmares.

"For over 30 years, I had memories," he said. "She [Veronica] would wake up; the kids would wonder why I would be crying or something like that."

A visit to The Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, D.C., some 10 years ago helped ease the pain, he said. His son, Benito, accompanied him there and urged him to walk up to the wall. He said he would do it but only if he could go alone.

The reflections of American military personnel and names of those who died during the war are etched into the wall, and they made an indelible impression upon Gomez.

"There were two guys in my unit who were out there [names on the wall]," he said. "It almost looks like you can see through the wall. That was the most powerful thing. About 90 percent of the nightmares went away."

The recent trip to Vietnam helped erase the rest. Not only were the Vietnamese he encountered friendly, but they said they bore no ill will toward American soldiers thrust into a war that no one really won.

He even talked to men who said they were part of the Viet Cong. They told Gomez and his veteran comrades, "You did what you did, and we did what we did," as if all were forgiven.

He recognized little. The dirt roads dotted with huts were now concrete roads crowded with mopeds bearing men, women, children and dogs.

For the most part, he felt peace and discovery on the trip. But as part of the tour, the veterans saw a propaganda film produced decades ago by the Viet Cong, who claimed they were beating the Americans in the war. Gomez shuddered a little.

"I saw my father tremble," said Benito Gomez Jr.

Shortly thereafter, the sound of gunfire from a shooting range made the younger Gomez realize his father was hearing, for the first time in nearly 55 years, the sounds of war in the spot where he was once stationed.

"That was the first incident that hit [me]," the elder Gomez recalled of the gunfire. "I knew they were firing [at the range]. I was waiting for it, but at the same time, when it hit ..."

His voice trailed off. Maybe some of the nightmares still remain.

There are good memories: of fellow warriors who became friends, of a USO Tour headed by comedian Bob Hope -- which, to Gomez, meant "somebody cared" -- and a temporary leave to meet his wife in Hawaii after she gave birth to Benito Jr. in 1968.

That trip out of Vietnam to see his wife and newborn child was a stroke of luck. No sooner did a helicopter pilot ferry Gomez and other soldiers taking leave out of a mountain fortress they were holding than the Viet Cong hit it, killing and wounding many of his fellow Americans. The clouds around that mountaintop obscured the view, but he could make out the red flares and lights of the fire fight from below the mountain.

He got away when many others did not.

"Ever hear of survivor's guilt?" Veronica Gomez asked as her husband sat silently nearby.

He said he knows that moment was a gift from God.

Gomez said he is happy he made the recent trip back to a country he once saw only in mortar-and-rocket tarred terms. His son said he believes his father came back with a sense of "happiness and hope. He was happy to see the people of Vietnam resilient and moving on and forgiving to the Americans."

At 77, the elder Gomez -- who spent 35 years of his post-military life working for Los Alamos National Laboratory as an electronics technician -- said he would go to war again if his country wanted him to.

"I would go fight for them; I really would," he said. "This country is too valuable to be played with."

(c) 2022 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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