Vietnam veteran Dan Martinez now serves Warm Springs community
The first thing you notice about Dan Martinez is his easy smile and warm handshake.
He will tell you that wouldn't have been the case when he was a Marine sergeant during the Vietnam War. He said he looked like a bulldog then.
The transformation came as he lay in the sick bay, recovering from the loss of part of his fingers, some eyesight and some hearing.
"I stopped and prayed. I said, 'If I ever get out of here, I will never hate,'" he said. "I told God, 'If I ever get out of here, I want to serve my community.'"
It's a promise he was destined to keep, though he couldn't know he would take his community through the crisis of having no water for 86 days.
He left the hospital a changed man. "I feel today like I've been blessed with a natural grin. I don't look like an enemy anymore."
He was only 17 when he signed up. He had just graduated from high school in Salinas, California, a few months before his 18th birthday. He went to Warm Springs to visit his mother and asked her to sign the papers. He'd been raised by his father, and his mother was almost a stranger. But she signed.
Martinez chose to enlist for a few reasons. He was fairly certain he would be drafted, as one of his brothers was. He chose the Marine Corps because he had brothers and cousins in the three other branches of the service, and he wanted to be different.
"But I was glad I did. Definitely taught me some responsibility and accountability."
For 40 years, he didn't talk much about his experiences, but now, at 66, he is opening up. He credits his wife, Heather Crow-Martinez, the program manager at BestCare Treatment Services in Madras. She kept gently asking questions.
Martinez was an expert shooter, able to hit a target from 1,000 yards. That earned him a position guarding embassies in Cambodia, Thailand, Korea, and Japan, as well as patrolling the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. He spent 90 days in one place before moving on. He wasn't supposed to get friendly with the ambassadors, and the Marine Corps didn't want anyone knowing where he was.
"Eighty percent of the time my family never even knew where I was," he said.
Because of his Native American and Latino heritage, the Marines saw Martinez as someone who could blend in. That meant assignments away from the embassies that he couldn't talk about.
"The worst part of my job was tracking down dodgers," he said, as well as people married to the Viet Cong and civilians who shared secrets with the enemy.
But the job came with a contract that required Martinez not to drink or do drugs; it was one that would change his life.
"They needed me to be sober 24-7," he said. He could be shipped out at any time.
"That contract did more than just spare me in Vietnam," he said. "It made me who I am today."
Martinez said he has never been drunk in his life. He stayed faithful to the contract.
"Being in Vietnam was the experience of patrolling … and coming face to face with the enemy," he said.
Most of the combat he saw was evacuating the U.S. embassies in Saigon, Vietnam, and in Cambodia. People were climbing the fences, and he didn't know whether they were enemies or people looking for safety.
He was prepared for that. What he wasn't ready for was the response when he came back to the United States. People spit on him and called him "baby killer."
"The whole world was upside-down," he said.
It wasn't the protests themselves that bothered him.
"You needed protesters to say, 'Why are we there?'" he said. "I think they were blaming the wrong guys."
He doesn't want apologies from those who protested, despite how much they hurt him. He doesn't want to relive it.
Instead, he wants a "'Thank you for your service and a handshake.' That means everything to me," he said.
His return to Warm Springs, where he now had a wife and baby, was a relief.
"It was totally the opposite," he said. "They honored me ... Natives look at it as service to their country and to their sovereign nation."
Martinez said he came home to a fresh start, one that not every Vietnam veteran was given.
"I had another way out," he said. He credits the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs and its Emergency Management Services for that.
He started working as an emergency medical technician for Warm Springs Fire & Safety and moved up in the agency, spending 17 years as fire chief.
He is now emergency manager for Tribal Emergency Management.
When a 14-inch water line broke on Shitike Creek in May, nearly 4,000 people in Warm Springs were left without water, a crisis that would last for 86 days.
Martinez would be reminded of his days in the Marines, when he would sometimes have to walk 5 or 6 miles just to get water that wasn't clean.
When tribal leaders would argue about the cost of infrastructure, he would hold up a glass of water, reminding them that the children of the community needed something to drink.
"I call it life support," he said. "You can't live without it."
His crew worked more than 16 hours a day, hand pumping water into gallon containers and distributing a total of 364,000 gallons throughout the community. They set up showers and emptied gray water. They also set up chemical toilets and ordered special ones for elders who couldn't use them. They distributed Clorox wipes and paper plates.
"The challenge went beyond needing water," he said, gesturing at shelves of towels, bleach, baking soda, health kits, plus baby shampoo and bath toys to get reluctant children to take a shower in a strange place.
"We had a powwow," he said. "We didn't cancel anything."
He credits the generosity of the community, as well as people far beyond, and the dedication of his team with the efforts.
"So now you know why I don't think of Vietnam as much as I used to," he said, standing in a hallway filled with water containers.
Yet Martinez does think about Vietnam. He's involved in an effort to build a Vietnam memorial at the Museum at Warm Springs to honor the community's 38 or so veterans of the conflict. It's about 40% complete, Martinez said.
The vision began in 1991 and recently received a $110,000 grant from the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.
"We had to do a better job recognizing our veterans," Martinez said. "I can't think of a single family anywhere that doesn't have a member that served in the military."
Despite the sacrifices he continues to make for his community, he calls it his safe haven.
"I love my community, and I'm glad I'm home. And I kiss the ground I walk on."
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