Vietnam vet aids Warm Springs community during crises
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. Martinez 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,'" Martinez said. "I told God, 'If I ever get out of here, I want to serve my community.'"
It's a promise Martinez 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," Martinez said.
He was only 17 years old when he signed up. He had just graduated from high school in Salinas, California, a few months before his 18th birthday. Martinez 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," he said.
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.
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.
"Being in Vietnam was the experience of patroling … and coming face to face with the enemy," he said.
Most of the combat Martinezs aw was while he was evacuating the U.S. embassies in Saigon, Vietnam and in Cambodia.
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."
He doesn't want apologies from those who protested, despite how much they hurt him.
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 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 this 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 five or six miles just to get water that wasn't clean.
"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.
"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.
"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 veterans memorial at The Museum at Warm Springs to honor all of the community's veterans, including 38 or so who served in Vietnam. It's about 40% complete, Martinez said.
"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."
U.S. Marines, 1971-75
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