SERGEANT PHILIP B. GARCIA
Philip Garcia is a Vietnam Vet who bravely served in the military well through its escalation in the late 1960s. Although he could have many reasons to feel sorry for himself, he’s been an inspiration to many people through his optimistic mind and his will to help and fight for others less fortunate than he. We can all learn something from a person who’s been able to find the positive in life, rather than the negative, just as Mr. Garcia has displayed.
Garcia was born in Lincoln Hospital in East Los Angeles and attended Lorena Grammar School at a time when the neighborhood was mainly Jewish. Not surprisingly, his mother is Jewish and his father is Hispanic.
Later, Garcia and his family moved to Rosemead, CA. at a time when that neighborhood was mainly Anglo. He attended, but did not graduate from Mark Keppel High School and enlisted in the Army as a Paratrooper when he was 17. Garcia says, “I was an average kid, I didn’t get involved in gangs but I did enjoy drawing very much.”
Not knowing what to expect, Garcia was young and believed he was ready for anything that came his way. “The year was 1965 and the war was beginning to escalate and as a Paratrooper this is what you train for so we all were gung-ho to go fight in Vietnam. I put myself on the fast track to completion and I got out of jump school. In 1966 I became a Ranger and served with the 101st Airborne for a while in Vietnam.”
Early on, Garcia was wounded for the first time. Though not life threatening, he remembers waking up in a hospital and was subsequently separated from his unit. But even that didn’t stop his fighting spirit from bravely continuing his mission.
“When I was better, I took a helicopter and after traveling to several camps, I was finally back with my unit. I felt that I should have been there with them during that battle because many men were lost,” says Garcia.
Garcia seems to have come close to death plenty of times while in battle. “We were on our way to Black Virgin Mountain, on a rescue mission and I could see out of the plexi-glass window three fallen helicopters and I thought to myself ‘this is it, I am going to die right here!”
He was struck for a second time in 1967, yet he pushed on.
Garcia later describes a fight late in May of 1967 that ended with an unimaginable outcome. “We knew something huge was happening because there were a lot of enemies, we felt outnumbered, and it was a crazy fight.”
Although his force was outnumbered three to one, Colonel Haig (Garcia’s Colonel) succeeded in inflicting 592 casualties on the Viet Cong.
“When it was all over, another division was burying the fallen soldiers and we were in charge of security. They were digging these giant holes and I had never seen so many bodies being buried like that before,” says Garcia. “That day we were involved in a very dramatic battle. A lot of the higher-ranking men were getting killed; my Lieutenant was killed and also the Sergeant.”
The third and final infliction Garcia took wound up being his most devastating. “The last time I was hit, I had my whole right shoulder shot out, that happened in June of 1967. I don’t know what I got hit with because all kinds of rounds were going off all over the place.”
The tremendous amount of ammunition going off around the clock has proven to be the most traumatizing for Vietnam Veterans. “Many veterans who have been back for years still hear the ringing in their ears from all the rounds going off,” says Garcia.
His final wound finally allowed him to be recognized for his bravery, but that has also come with a cost. “I received a Bronze Star for Valor for that last battle.”
“But, I really never go back and relive all those days intentionally. I really don’t like talking about that day. I prefer to kind of move around (the subject) instead of being specific,” adds an emotional Garcia.
That was just the beginning for Garcia. Upon arriving home, he was faced with more problems that he was unsure on how to deal with.
“When I returned, I was drinking and dealing with PTSD (Post Dramatic Stress Disorder) when no one knew much about how to treat it.”
“I went to the Veterans hospital in San Francisco and had to learn how to write left-handed, I am dyslexic; I couldn’t get unemployment because the VA gave me a 100% clearance,” explains Garcia.
However, Garcia quickly learned how to change his fate around. “I went to East Los Angeles College then Rio Hondo College and I managed to get my Masters Degree in Rehabilitation Psychology at San Bernardino College.”
Garcia now wanted to help others, especially neglected veterans. He searched out counseling and arrived at the Veteran’s Center to help others like himself.
An inspirational Garcia is prideful in the change he made in his life. “After I got my Masters Degree I was hired by the VA around 1992 and worked in Los Angeles and was sent here (Readjustment Counseling Services) in 1999 and have been here at this office in San Bernardino sense then. I became the head of the facility about six months later; they called these programs Readjustment Centers for our Veterans.”
An enthusiastic Garcia eagerly explains more about the program and his organization, “This office was opened in 1994; we mostly have Vietnam veterans and have a large group here. This place is fully funded by our government; we are the first line of help and I think they get that and understand what an important tool this place is.”
Though their services are limited, Garcia says that what they offer is better than medicine. “We do not offer medication, only hope. This is a great place to practice social skills; we get together for Barbeques, Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas dinner; every year we participate in a couple of parades and different functions throughout the year.
This work seems to be therapeutic for Garcia. He enjoys being a part of the recovery of veterans.
“They usually come in for counseling or for trauma; we are like the triage teams of the VA I counsel these guys from my heart and give them hope,” says a proud Garcia.
“We can move faster because we’re not a hospital, when they come here they can see someone quickly and we try to help them with their problems immediately.”
In the decade that Garcia has been employed here, he has made great differences in the staff’s effort to reach out to lost veterans.
“When I came here to this office we were only seeing about 2,000 veterans a year. Now we have exceeded that dramatically; the groups are a lot bigger, and now we have a good mix of all races. There’s a lot of culture here, we have a very good group, and there’s a lot of commonality in every group here.” Proudly, Garcia adds, “We saw about 7,000 veterans this year, here in this office alone. We also have a group of Korean War veterans and World War II veterans that meet here.”
“Because we come from a military culture, there are no racial barriers here. I thank God for having me here and for giving me a chance to set a positive environment. We can see there is a life ahead,” adds Garcia.
No matter how common the vets may have been, Garcia says he noticed a difference in camaraderie within his own Hispanic community, something he was very happy to share.
“There were those very brave gung-ho soldiers of all races, but you do notice that our Hispanic values make us great soldiers. Hispanics care for each other and have strong values, and in battle, I was taught early on that you don’t run away. We bring strong family values to whatever we do; so on the battlefield your squad is your family and you try to protect them as your family. You see this attitude in our brave Hispanic military when they serve.”
Garcia continues to have positive high hopes for veterans, including Hispanic veterans. “There’s a lot of Phil Garcia’s all over the United States that are really trying to help people, mainly veterans.”
“I still hope to see more Hispanics in higher places at the VA, we find many but they don’t have the higher paying jobs. I hope that changes because there are plenty of Hispanics with the skills needed for those higher paying jobs.”
Garcia rewinds a bit, and tells us how his own unjust experiences as a war vet led him to help others. “I really became a VA advocate after being hired for a postal job in West Covina. I worked there for two years, and because I was disabled, I was unable to handle the rough work environment. My boss did not care that I was unable to handle the long hours, so he gave my position to someone else who was quicker than I was.”
“That is when I knew I had to get an education. I have a hard labor mentality because of my parents and I decided to put that effort into education and that is how I got my Masters Degree,” says Garcia.
Later, Garcia’s government problem led him to seek greater justice for mistreated war vets. “I lost my 100% disability early on and had to fight for five years to get that designation back. While doing so, I noticed there was a lot of unfairness in the system.”
“After the five year struggle, I was able to get my status back to 100% disability and I knew then I had to become a strong advocate for Veteran’s rights.”
An emotional Garcia recalls how hard it was to be in the military in those days. “The Vietnam veterans had it hard because of the anti-war movement. When they returned from this terrible experience, they were not treated very well by the American people.”
“It was very sad because many came home highly decorated for their bravery and then were received by being spit on or beaten up by protesters because they decided to wear their uniform when they came home. They would tell us not to wear our uniform while traveling for our own safety.”
Though a newly changed an optimistic person, Garcia still has a tough time facing the hardships and inequalities he endured. “I know I put my life on the line; whatever went down, I was there. Now they have a different definition of Gallantry vs. Valor. Many men died in battle, in the throes of heroism and their family got nothing for it.”
However painful the past may have been, Garcia remembers that since then there has been a big change. “The Vietnam veterans did change the system when it comes to benefits, and the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC was a wake-up call for Americans to honor all those who had served in battle. After that, the memorial for World War II and Korean War veterans was built.”
Garcia continues to make the greatest changes here in America. Although he holds nothing against Vietnam or Vietnamese people, he could never relive what he has been through. “It can be healing to others, but I don’t think I can go back to Vietnam. It would take me back to the thought of war; their voices mean danger to me, so I don’t think I could go back.”
And even in the modern war in Iraq, Garcia notices the changes that have come since his days of being a soldier. “Today it is required for you to wear your uniform while traveling and today’s soldier can feel proud to wear that uniform because this war has embraced its young men and women who wear the uniform,” Garcia says with a hopeful voice.
He gives honest advice to the new generation of heroic soldiers because he knows what it’s like to be in their shoes. “For the veterans that are coming back, I say to them ‘don’t assume anything. If you have problems in different areas seek help for whatever is troubling you. The help is there, find it. Whatever help is available, get it. Don’t live with your problems. Whether it’s depression, difficulty holding onto a job, help is out there.”
He also adds one more tidbit of advice, “There are places for homeless veterans in Southern California called U.S. Vets with several locations or Salvation Army, it’s a good place for them. No one should be homeless in America, especially not brave vets.
One reason Garcia has been able to stay so positive an optimistic through all the obstacles he’s overcome is because of his religion, although he admits he wasn’t always so pious. “When I came back from Vietnam I did not see God working in my life, thinking back now, some of my most precious moments were being in church with my dad. When I got married and we had children, I began to see God working in my life.”
“I always go full circle with everything, and the same goes with my Christianity. I went into Judaism and wanted to see how those believers saw it; the Apostles, etc. and I wanted to try to understand it from the beginning,” explains Garcia.
More than 58,000 soldiers lost and forty years later, Philip B. Garcia still sees a big future in helping recuperate his war vet comrades. He has proven that dreams are attainable no matter how far they seem. He has gone beyond the possibilities of the average person, let alone a disabled war vet.
He continues to be an influential and motivating component in the rights of war vets and hopes to be involved with the recovery of today’s war heroes. Let’s hope he continues his honorable and courageous work for many more years to come.
“I see myself like a preacher in a way because I speak to them and listen to them and we do not use medicine here, just open arms.” I want to council for many more years. Let’s see what God has for me.”
—Story by: Jessica De La Cruz - Interview by; Alfredo Perez
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