On the front lines or the supply lines, every veteran’s experience is different. However, what they have in common is more important. On the third Thursday of nearly every month, veterans at the American Legion Gilroy Post 217 gather for Social Night—they talk, laugh and some drink beers as they prepare to share a meal.
Last week, tacos with freshly cooked tortillas were on the menu and the smells wafted through the hall. The mood was light, welcoming and full of smiles. The experiences of many here are often anything but typical—rather, they are the lurid tales of encounters that few can contemplate. They come from all over and have divergent views on the world, but at American Legion Post 217, they feel like comrades and appear to be at home.
Frank Sanchez is part of the rapidly departing Greatest Generation, which fought and won against the forces of fascism. Sanchez, 93, entered the Army in 1943 as part of Anti-Aircraft Battalion Battery A 124 and went off to Europe in 1944 to man a 90mm anti-aircraft gun. The rounds fired by Sanchez punched holes through Hermann Goering’s vaunted Luftwaffe, bringing down German bombers and helping the Allied powers win air superiority and achieve victory in Europe.
Sanchez went to basic training at Camp Callan at La Jolla California in 1943, before shipping off to Britain, France, Holland and eventually to Germany, when he saw the end of Hitler’s Third Reich on VE-Day, May 8, 1945.
“Whenever the planes came over they’d give us the signal, ‘Get ready, they’re coming,’ then ‘Boom, Boom, Boom,’” Sanchez says.
An active member of the American Legion for 37 years and with the Veterans of Foreign Wars for 41 years, Sanchez still serves on the Rifle Salute Honor Guard and fire the customary salute this Memorial Day. Sanchez was one of seven brothers who served in the United States Armed Forces, including his brother Ray Sanchez, a member of the Board of Directors for the South Santa Clara Valley Memorial District and another member of Post 217. With five kids and a virtually innumerable brood of grandchildren and great-grandchildren—Sanchez has lived a long and full life.
“My sons have been talking about my 94th birthday coming up, so I guess everyone knows about it now,” Sanchez says. “It’s been a long good life. Beautiful.”
Another member of Post 217 is Jose Delgado, a tall man, with a neat mustache and short, salt and pepper hair. Delgado, 69, grew up in New York City in the 1950s and ’60s and, in part, joining the Marines was a show of patriotism, but also served as a way to get off the streets of New York, where good work was in short supply.
When discussing his life, which included six years in the Marines and 16 years in the Army, his New York City accent cannot be missed.
“I retired when I was 47 years old—I was the oldest private out there!” Delgado laughed.
Delgado lived on the battlefield during the Vietnam War from 1966 to 1967, near the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam, several hundred kilometers from the city of Hue. He lived in the brush and was often sent on night patrol to scout for North Vietnamese soldiers.
In the jungle, the combat zone was everywhere. At night, under the dense jungle canopy of Vietnam, he and his fellow Marines were sent out on patrol around their camp, seeking contact with the enemy, fighting to prevent them from crossing the border into South Vietnam. When battle lines cannot be defined, it is kill, or be killed and the Marines have no need for the word, retreat, he explained.
“They told us to retreat, forward,” Sanchez says. “You didn’t want to be left behind. The enemy wanted officers, as prisoners, not privates. We all kept a spare bullet around; you didn’t want to get captured.”
Delgado chafed under authority and witnessed abuses heaped upon young soldiers by officers, who led from the rear and thought from their hindquarters. He and his fellow soldiers were exposed to contaminated drinking water, DDT and Agent Orange on regular occasions. Dopey young lieutenants wouldn’t keep their regulation manuals long, or their belt buckles shiny before Delgado and his mates taught them the reality of jungle warfare.
“I can’t sum it up in a word, it takes more than that,” Delgado says. “The hardest part was losing my friends and losing them so closely. That stays with you. I definitely have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but I didn’t recognize it until seven or eight years ago.”
Delgado experienced symptoms shortly after his combat experience in Vietnam ended, up until 2015 after years of therapy from the Veterans Administration.
“I was always vigilant like I was going to be attacked at any time,” Delgado says. “You couldn’t stand behind me because I could feel that on the back of my neck. You couldn’t block the door because if I want to get out, I’ll go through you. I couldn’t take a movie because it was too dark, I couldn’t see who was in there. In a restaurant, I had to sit in a place where I could watch the door, so I could see who was coming in.
“When I got married, my wife would cry herself to sleep because I would sleep on the edge of the bed. I couldn’t be touched when I was sleeping.”
For Delgado, the basics of human comfort were the ultimate forms of luxury, as he and his fellow Marines lived far from civilization. During his time in Vietnam, the only leave Delgado was allowed was a week-long trip to China Beach near Da Nang.
“The thing I most enjoyed was the flushing toilet—it was like a dream,” Delgado says. “It was the first time in a year that I saw a flushing toilet. You’d be surprised what we do to go to the bathroom in the jungle. You don’t know what’s going to be there. A snake, the enemy—so we’d buddy up.”
As a Vietnam veteran, Delgado is frustrated with the ongoing war in Afghanistan. The nebulous conflict, which began shortly after 9/11 and has gone through various stages of intensity, has killed nearly 2,400 U.S. service personnel during the 16 years of combat.
“I feel we didn’t go there with a goal, we still don’t have a goal,” he says. “I feel that there are so many cells and factions there that we will never get them together.
“But, nobody is getting anything, because they’re too busy fighting each other. They’ll never get together—it’s never going to happen.”
For Delgado, the time has come to completely pull out of Afghanistan and remove the remaining soldiers in Iraq. The hard lessons he learned in Vietnam inform his opinion. Delgado was still in the Army when the U.S. left Vietnam in 1973.
“There was no end to it—we were in there since 1955 and the end was just black, we just walked away,” Delgado says. “I cried that day because so many people died, a lot of my buddies died for nothing. When they pull out of Afghanistan, it will be the same thing.
“People died for nothing, nothing at all. As much as I loved Obama, he was wrong, dead wrong to put more soldiers into Afghanistan. If you’re going to pull out, get out completely. Let them implode (Afghanistan) because that’s what’s going to happen.”
Delgado is also very skeptical of President Donald Trump’s missile attack in Syria in response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
“When he threw those missiles, he didn’t do anything with that,” Delgado says. “Was it a show of force? Hell no! That doesn’t mean anything to them. They’re just going to replace it.
“He didn’t have any goal. A couple of bombs? You’re going to have to do better than that. Hit the damn castle, where this guy is hiding; then you make a point.”
Delgado is not of the opinion to use military intervention except for direct attacks on the United States.
“I think when they get ready to use it on us, just like in WWII,” Delgado says. “The Japanese wanted to eliminate us. The Germans wanted to eliminate us. That’s the time for everyone to get their gun. Fight them over there, not over here.”
Living with post traumatic stress was hard for Delgado but after years of therapy to relieve the trauma of war, he found part of his salvation in remembering the past and by being active in the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Marine Corp League and Post 217. Delgado joined these veterans associations, in part, to help work through his PTSD, but also to provide services to the community including having fundraisers and providing scholarships for students.
“I feel it’s important to remember—it helps me get to point where I am now,” he says.
As the evening begins, Commander Robert Armendariz recaps The Legion’s first annual golf tournament, which is part of their fundraising events schedule for their 96th anniversary on June 3. After Delgado finishes the prayer, Armendariz leads the gathering in the Pledge of Allegiance. They’ll meet again on Memorial Day for a remembrance ceremony at the mausoleum in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Gilroy. They will read the honors for all the deceased from as far back as WWI up to the recent additions of Jeramy Ailes, who was killed in Iraq in 2004 and David Gutierrez who was killed in Afghanistan in 2009.
Tonight though, Sanchez, Delgado and dozens of other Gilroy veterans relax and enjoy each other’s company. Even though their experiences differ in many ways, they still share in common their service to their country.
By Bryce Stoepfel