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Purple Heart vet shares war experience in honor of Independence Day

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Kevin Wallace and Airman 1st Class Shen-Chia Chu
  • 436th AW Public Affairs
Independence Day was days away and laughter could be heard spilling out the double-glass doors at the base Post Office as a half dozen customers shared their weekend plans with "Fred." One by one, as their turn came, patrons handed various-sized packages to Fred and he processed them - smiling and entertaining the crowd the entire time.

Though most Team Dover knows Fernando Martin as Fred, the kind and entertaining gentleman who always meets their postal needs, there are many scars and wounds he secretly carries.

Before the 22 years he spent working for the postal service, Fred was a Marine and served in the dark jungles of Vietnam. Though blood-soiled clothes, salty tears and fallen friends are a part of his history now, a ribbon rack exhibiting two Purple Hearts sits on his work station - reminding him and all his customers of the sacrifices troops made and continue to make.

Independence is not free and every red-blooded American should reflect on that fact this week, urged the combat veteran. Fred normally remains silent on his dismal history in the jungle and instead entertains his customers with joy and cheer. However, this 4th of July he decided to break his own rule of keeping silent- he decided to share his personal accounts in Vietnam with Team Dover.

At 18 Fred enlisted in the Marine Corps and was trained as a combat engineer who specialized in explosives, disarming mines, booby traps and mine sweeping. He was trained to shoot and kill and on Jan. 8, 1968, was shipped out to Vietnam.

"It didn't faze me that I was in Vietnam until I landed in Da Nang and heard the first gunshots around me," he said. "That's when the realization hit me, 'I could die here.'"

Fred was assigned to a support fire base in a demilitarized zone less than five miles from the border of North Vietnam. What he found there was hostility and endless darkness - figuratively and literally.

"You ain't seen dark until you're in the jungle - you can't even see your hand that's right in front of you," he said.

Many times the darkness in Fred's vicinity was illuminated by muzzle flashes. By his location, job and unit, he was engaged in battle all the time.

Fred was part of Charlie Company, 3rd Engineer Battalion, 3rd Marine Division who conducted patrols everyday looking for the enemy in Dong Ha. They fought against the North Vietnamese Army, who were trained troops that were engaged in a more conventional war and at times committing large-sized units into battle.

Fred recalls his first fire fight or 'baptismal fire,' when his company of 100 men was outnumbered five-to-one.

"We were sweeping the road for mines when all of a sudden our men were ambushed by a reinforced regiment and we fought them for 12 hours non-stop," said Fred, who said it was his first time seeing death. "War is not scripted, when you're in war - anything goes. You don't have time to think, you can only react."

Within the first month of serving in Vietnam, he received his first Purple Heart, just seven days before his 19th birthday. The second time he earned a Purple Heart he was sent home.

Fred recalled the battle the day he was awarded his second Purple Heart, the day he received his "million dollar wound," a wound bad enough to be sent out of the jungles and back to civilization.

"I knew something was wrong as soon as I got there," he said, referring to his mission. "There was an eerie silence."

Fred said he learned from his first ambush that something dreadful was about to happen, because he didn't hear any sounds coming from animals in the jungle. Troops in Afghanistan often describe the same silence prior to attacks.

Then Fred noticed something in the horizon - something utterly surreal.

"I thought I was dreaming when I saw a human wave of our enemy coming down the valley," he said. "As I tried to reach for my rifle, an explosion went off."

Fred searched for his wound, because he felt the throbbing pain, but could not find it until he discovered a hole in his arm.

"I found a hole about the size of a quarter in my arm form the explosion," he said. Still, the battle ensued.

After the battle ended, Fred and his fellow Marines drug the dead bodies of their fellow Marines and piled them into a helicopter. The crew chief said they could only carry 15 to 18 bodies back in the chopper because the helicopter would overload and some would be left behind.

"When he said this, I turned around and told him, 'you get the hell off then,'" said Fred, and they continued to pile more bodies into the chopper. "We are Marines - we don't leave nobody."

Gazing around the battle field, Fred saw Marines crying out in pain, while others prayed or pleaded for their mothers. Seeing fallen friends and wounded comrades is painful, said Fred. Still, he doesn't know what is worse, seeing the dead on the battlefield or the wounded in the hospital.

"I've seen all kinds of things, Marines missing arms, legs and faces," Fred said. "I've seen more death than I ever wanted to see for the rest of my life."

Coming back from Vietnam posed its own challenge for Fred, who explained that at that time Marines were not debriefed when they came back from war. Like most servicemembers then, Fred did not receive any therapy or emotional treatment.

"When you're trained to kill in a hostile environment and thrown into society without being taught how to adapt, it's hard," he said. "The transition is not made over night and it may take the rest of your life."

When Fred came back from the war, he said he only felt one word - resentful. While trying to come to terms with what he had done and saw, he had to face another challenge - a society of American people who hated him for his military service.

"I threw all my medals away, but my mother made me go get them back," he said. "I felt betrayed. We were spit on and called baby killers."

Fred feels the level of respect given to servicemembers today is just and hopes his beloved countrymen never revert back to the mentality they had when he wore his military uniform. Troops sacrifice a lot for freedom and the American way of life - many will continue to sacrifice their entire life.

Though it has been more than 40 years since Fred served his time in Vietnam, he said he can recall everything as if it happened yesterday.

"I may forget something easily five minutes ago, but this memory, is like a switch. I remember everything," he said. "Sometimes I wonder where those who fought alongside me in Vietnam are today."

Though Fred may not wear the uniform on the outside, he wears the uniform of a Marine in his heart and believes Marines remain faithful to their mission, to the Corps and to their country - no matter what.

Fred asked this story to be dedicated to all the military members around the world, regardless of their branch of service with a Marine term of brotherhood and remaining faithful to one's own. "To all of you," he said, "Semper Fi!"