By Ednna Solis
“For those who fought for it, freedom has a flavor the protected will never know,” reads a flier carefully placed in a Vietnam War photo album.
The album belongs to Fred Castañeda, a Mexican citizen from Aguascalientes, Mexico, who served in the United States Army for nearly four years, and as a combat infantryman during Vietnam. Although he was 60 years old at the time of his interview, he had yet to file for American citizenship. He still traveled on a Mexican passport, even though U.S. citizenship was offered to him upon his return from Vietnam.
"I thought about that and said, 'If this is the way you're going to be treated, I'll go back to Mexico,’" Castañeda said.
To explain what he meant by this, he added in a written response after the interview:
"What we experienced firsthand upon returning home from combat in Vietnam is best described by the History Channel Documentary series “Weapons of War,” in the episode called “The Grunts of Vietnam.” We were the victims 'of a rejection by an ungrateful American public.' I feel that these were psychological scars that became some of the real casualties of war for us – for the combat infantrymen."
Castañeda joined the war effort in 1970. A Mexican citizen with a scholarship to attend college, when the money ran out, his birthday was number 29 on the first lottery list for the draft.
Although called up for the Army, he chose to go Airborne.
“[B]eing a paratrooper and going to parachute training in jump school is strictly voluntary,” wrote Castañeda after his interview.
After several months of training, he was shipped to Cam Ranh Bay to serve in the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam. Airborne forces are usually made up of light infantry units dropped into battle by aircraft. These units are used for stealth to screen and delay the enemy advance and have the ability to deploy behind enemy lines at a moment’s notice.
But, due to heavy casualties sustained by the 23rd Infantry, also known as the Americal Division, all airborne personnel were redeployed instead to I Corps in Chu Lai, a large base in South Vietnam, to help the understaffed 23rd. Castañeda served in the Americal’s 196th Light Infantry Brigade as a machine-gunner, carrying an m-60 in the mountains, rice paddies and jungles of South Vietnam.
Sifting through the photo album pages, Castañeda stopped at self-portraits of a younger version of himself, wearing a faded military green, button-up shirt and boonie hat. He also wears a blank expression on his face, almost frowning and looking straight at the camera. He said the picture was taken after his second mission.
“You now know what combat is like, and you’ve seen the brutality and experienced the sheer terror,” Castañeda said. “This is what is called the thousand-yard stare.”
He turned to a black and white photo of his college years. Wearing a suit and tie, he comes across as clean cut, clean shaven and driven. He is looking into the distance, toward a hopeful future.
Unfortunately, the six medals tacked on Castañeda’s dress uniform have not mitigated the aftermath of serving in a politician’s war. Castañeda suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an anxiety-related condition developed after experiencing psychological trauma, and a common disorder found in soldiers who participate in combat.
It has only been recognized since 1980 as a clinical condition. Research on Vietnam veterans tends to indicate that ethnic minorities suffer a higher incidence of this disorder than Anglos. For example, the National Center for PTSD cites a National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study that found “Both Hispanic- and African-American male Vietnam theater veterans had higher rates of PTSD than Whites. Rates of PTSD in the 1990 study were 28% among Hispanics, 21% among African-Americans, and 14% among Whites.”
Castañeda, who worked for IBM for 31 years prior to his being laid off in 2009, said he has suffered from broken relationships and a sense of alienation as a result of dealing with the symptoms.
In addition to suffering from the disorder, Castañeda has received treatment for diabetes, respiratory, prostrate and other problems associated to varying degrees with Agent Orange. The Vietnam War was the first in which there was documented use of herbicidal warfare, a tactic used to render agricultural food production ineffective, as well as to destroy plants providing enemy camouflage. Exposure to Agent Orange, the main herbicide and defoliant used by the U.S. military during Vietnam, has been linked to a number of diseases and chronic conditions suffered by a disproportionately high number of Vietnam War veterans, in both the U.S. and Vietnam.
“What they didn’t tell us is that they were spraying the area with Agent Orange,” Castañeda said.
He wore a VA-issued dog tag reading: “I have diabetes,” and noted he has no family history of diabetes. Also, his wife miscarried during her third pregnancy, due to what Castañeda said were complications associated with Agent Orange.
“After that, I made sure I didn’t have any more children,” Castañeda said. “Had he lived, he would’ve been a vegetable.”
After his honorable discharge at the rank of sergeant in May 1974, Castañeda returned to Los Angeles, where he had been living at least since high school, to complete studies at UCLA and what was then Loyola University. After earning his bachelor’s degree from Loyola, he attended the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey, one of the most prestigious universities in Mexico, to begin his master’s in Business Administration.
He said he hoped to finance his college education with funds provided by the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, otherwise known as the G.I. Bill, but the monetary reward was bogged down in red tape and delays from a regional Veterans Administration office in Houston, which served Latin American universities. Castañeda said his funds came two years too late, so he resolved to complete his degree at Loyola, where he had majored as an undergraduate in Communication Arts, Television and Film Production.
He added after his interview that he later obtained his MBA from Loyola, then studied some for a Ph.D. in International Business.
Castañeda is one of countless Latinos to have served the United States in the military.
“Latinos fought, and they never complained when it came time for them to fight,” said Castañeda of the Vietnam War. “They didn’t do it because they wanted to be brave. It just had to be done.”
He even worked as an Army recruiter in California, Florida, Georgia, Texas and Puerto Rico as the war was winding down, from 1972 to 1974, through a program called Urban Recruiting, or the Hometown Recruiting Program. He wrote after his interview that he emphasized “education and career-training benefits instead of combat … so that the Latinos could improve their lives, get trained and become educated contributors.”
Castañeda’s personal focus was getting Hispanics in the elite, higher-paying 82nd Airborne Division for paratroopers, a goal he said he accomplished with 156 youths, mostly from the Caribbean region.
“Because we were Latinos, we had something in common. There was the element of trust, and I focused on that,” said Castañeda, adding over the phone after his interview, “I tried, my best, to talk them out of the glory of going into infantry.
Castañeda was interviewed in Austin, Texas, on Jan. 18, 2010, by Manuel G. Aviles-Santiago.