By Ruben Espinoza
When Gabriel Garcia left his family’s home in Mercedes for Army basic training in the summer of 1952, it was the first time he had ever been away from South Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.
California’s Camp Roberts was very different from his father's farm fields, where he could soak in the dense, warm Texas evenings. But he was excited to see other parts of the world.
“I don't think it was particularly difficult,” said Garcia of basic training. “. . . Being brought up by my parents, they inspired honesty in all of their children. We were used to hard work, and [military] service involved a lot of that.”
World War II was somewhat of an inspiration for him to enlist in the military, Garcia said. However, he was also influenced by his older brother, Joe, who joined the military first. A book Garcia received as a Christmas gift when he was a child, “Dick Donnelly of the Paratroopers,” also inspired him to join.
“I was 11 or 12 years old and decided I, too, wanted to jump,” wrote Garcia in a questionnaire pertaining to his VOCES interview.
Although Garcia served in both the Korean and Vietnam wars, he never saw any actual combat. As a paratrooper with the 504th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division for much of the time, he performed a lot of administrative duties. He had learned stenography skills as part of his Air Force training.
“I supported the decision makers,” wrote Garcia, who, according to his Summary of Military Service form and written post-interview correspondence, was stationed from 1953 to 1960 in the United States, at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Randolph Air Force Base near San Antonio and Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina. He served abroad from 1961 to 1977 in Naples, Italy; Saigon, Vietnam; Wiesbaden, Germany and Madrid, Spain.
Garcia did experience some particularly dangerous times during the year he was stationed in Vietnam with the Air Force.
“I was not in [the] front lines, but was shot at with 128 MM rockets,” he wrote after his interview.
The youngest of four, Garcia's childhood was anything but comfortable. His father's family had been into farming and ranching since before Garcia was born, and he remembered helping his mother, Angélica Treviño Garcia, pick cotton from the family’s fields starting at a young age. His father, Rafael Garcia, had a herd of 35 cattle, so young Garcia also milked cows.
“That strengthened my hands,” said Garcia with a chuckle.
He recalled his father’s strict ways and his mother’s religious devotion. His dad was fond of the slap of leather, and his mom used to make the sign of the cross over all of the children before they went to sleep each night, he said.
The family was always really careful with its money. For example, he said they never went out to eat.
Garcia enjoyed riding horses bareback, swimming and playing football and softball.
“We played softball quite a bit,” said Garcia, noting he would always get a ball as a Christmas gift, and spend hour upon hour tossing it up into the blue sky.
When Garcia first started school, he said he didn’t speak English. Although it took him some time to pick it up, he did not recall facing discrimination as a Mexican-American child.
“I didn't feel that I was discriminated against,” he said. “One reason might have been because I was confused with an Anglo most of the time, until I started speaking. A lot of the Anglos thought that I was white.”
After a domestic stint at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota,
Garcia was discharged from the Air Force on Sept. 1, 1979, at the elite rank of Chief Master Sergeant. For his service, he earned a Good Conduct Medal, a Vietnam Service Medal, a Bronze Star, a Joint Services Commendation Medal, a Parachutist Badge (commonly known as Jump Wings) and two Meritorious Service Medals.
He immediately enrolled at Austin Community College, where he spent two years focused on General Studies to acquire an Associate’s Degree. The government paid for Garcia’s education with the GI Bill, which he also used to purchase a home.
“One thing we can do is continue to strive to acquire formal learning to the extent that we're able to, because it's certainly not going to hurt,” said Garcia, in some advice to fellow Latinos.
Garcia has four children: Gus, Victor, Veronica and Gerardo. Their mother, Amelia Flores, passed away in 1989. At the time of his interview, Garcia lived with his wife, Mary Ellen Navarro, in Austin, Texas.
Garcia was interviewed in Austin Texas, on Jan. 15, 2010, by Cheryl Smith Kemp.