By Wes Hamilton
Paz Peña was a small-town kid in every way. Growing up in Mathis, Texas, he was the oldest of four siblings and always felt destined to leave his town to make an impact in the world.
Peña was born July 5, 1944, in Robstown, Texas, 18 miles from Corpus Christi, to Carlos Peña and Ysabel Lopez. His father was a laborer and his mother a maid. His childhood home had only two bedrooms and a kitchen, and he walked almost two miles to school each day. He proudly noted that he could not remember ever missing a day of school. Education was always important to Peña, and he saw the military as a way expand his horizons.
“The military became an attractive way to leave,” said Peña, who served in the military from 1964 to 1969. “I wanted to go to school but couldn’t afford it, so the military was a great option for me to serve and then get my education after.”
“Old south” attitudes persisted in Mathis' social and political customs; races were segregated. Change was on its way with the 1960s civil rights movements, but old habits died hard. Peña recalled an incident when Mexican-Americans began to exercise their rights to vote.
“The Texas Rangers showed up at the voting stations and harassed Mexican Americans at the polls, asking for IDs to make sure they were American citizens,” Peña said. “That is one memory that sticks with me about the times.”
In 1964, Peña enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and left Mathis for the first time on a plane to San Diego, California, where he would attend boot camp for three months. After boot camp, he was chosen to enroll in communications school, where radio support and teletypes became his specialty. Boot camp was Peña's first experience firing a weapon -- and he discovered he was good at it. He even received medals for being a sharpshooter.
“I related shooting to a game,” Peña said. “I was always trying to be better at it than somebody else. I enjoyed firing the weapon for competition.”
Peña was deployed to Da Nang, Vietnam, where his unit, Foreign Logistics Support Group, consisted of 3,000 communications specialists. Their job was to provide support for the infantry already in place.
“It was like being on vacation for a while,” Peña said. “We went to the city; we ate, looked around, and felt accepted as guests even in our uniforms.”
His unit was about 10 percent Latinos. While there was some name-calling and fighting back and forth between the diverse groups, Peña says they put it behind them when it came time to battle the Viet Cong.
His first mission was to lay communication lines around a nearby battlefield, and at night his unit was to defend the perimeter.
"We all feared the night, when you can't see. A lot of the movements took place at night,” Peña said. “We knew that there was people out there, and so we had to be very careful and very cautious."
During combat he sometimes carried a 10-pound radio backpack along with his other equipment. Peña said it was one of the most important pieces of communication for the infantry they were supporting.
“We knew that the radio we were carrying was a target, and no one really wanted to carry the radio,” Peña said. “We kind of had to draw straws for who would carry it. Luckily I was never really injured. I was fired at but never really hit."
After serving 13 months and six days in Vietnam, Peña was relieved of his duties and sent home. He served his commitment to the Marines for the next two years away from Vietnam and received his discharge in Annapolis, Maryland. Peña went home for six months to begin the next chapter of his life.
“When I came back, I thought there was more to life than this. I had that feeling of invincibility,” Peña said. “I can do pretty much anything I want to do if I can survive Vietnam."
So Peña decided to apply to the University of Texas at Austin. He was denied enrollment at first but didn't let the letter stop him. He waited outside the admissions office until he could speak to the man who wrote his rejection letter.
“This doesn’t make sense to me,” said Peña to the dean of admissions. “I am a veteran, and all I want to do is go to school.”
An emotional Peña said the official, in a change of heart, ripped up the rejection letter and said he could attend UT whenever he wanted.
During the time he was enrolled at UT, beginning in 1969, an anti-war, pro-civil rights sentiment permeated the campus. Peña was surrounded by people who thought the United States shouldn't be in Vietnam, and there were many demonstrations.
While at UT, Peña met his future wife, Ysabel. “She was an activist all the way,” said Peña. “She was a very big part in introducing me to things I had never thought about or experienced before. She was probably the reason I got into activism. From military to activism is a big change.”
Peña vividly remembers learning that a mine had severely injured his brother Raul. One day, two Marines came to his economics class to deliver the news that his younger brother had been seriously wounded in Vietnam and that he needed to go with his family.
"I could feel my body just turn cold," said Peña. "It affected me personally now, my family, my parents. I really began to question the war. Why are we there? That was probably one of my worst experiences in college"
Raul Peña survived his head injuries but lost his hearing and eyesight on his left side. Paz Peña did not experience post-traumatic stress disorder like his brother.
"It didn’t take me that long to adapt,” Peña said. “For the first two years, my brother still felt that he was there in many ways. At home he would jump out of his bed, thinking he was in a foxhole, and from time to time, even today, he still has relapses."
Peña went on to teach at Austin Community College, specializing in political science, Mexican-American politics and minorities in politics.
“Getting into teaching -- I never expected that to happen,” Peña said. “But it has been very rewarding and one of the best experiences in my life."
Although Peña disagrees with going to Vietnam, he looks positively at how serving in the military benefited him.
“It helped to change me for the best. It showed me how to appreciate things,” Peña said. “It showed me how to appreciate life, your fellow man. People helped me, and I felt like that put me in a position that I could help others. It changed me for the good, I think."
The Marine veteran often visits memorials of fallen comrades and even plans to visit Vietnam to see the country in a different light and put the past to rest.
Peña and his wife married in July 1972 in San Antonio, Texas, and had four children: Ana Leticia, Jose Paz, Pablo, and Elisa Pena.
Mr. Peña was interviewed by Wes Hamilton in Austin, Texas, on Nov. 5, 2010.