Portrait of service
Editor's note: The following story is an expanded version of what is printed in the 2019 edition of Salute to Veterans, which is inserted in print editions of Pamplin papers this week.
Sitting on a bus in San Diego on his way to basic training, Baltazar "JR" Gonzalez was having second thoughts.
The son of a migrant fieldworker from Mexico, Gonzalez was the second youngest of 11 siblings growing up in the Willamette Valley — the first one to graduate and the first one to go into the service. Before graduating Gervais Union High School in 1968, Gonzalez and a classmate had enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and shipped out from Portland that summer.
"I always liked the way the Marines — their dress uniforms — I always liked them," he said. "I think I'd seen too many John Wayne movies. I thought it would be cool."
But after staring down the aisle of the bus at a red-faced drill instructor screaming expletives at the new recruits, Gonzalez realized that life in the military might not be as advertised.
"He comes up the steps of the bus, and then with his rough voice, he tells us, "I want you guys to shut your (...) mouth and look straight ahead! Don't look at me! Don't look at your friend! Nothing!" Gonzalez recalls. "He starts yelling at us, and here's my friend sitting right next to me, and I say Greg — what the (...) did we get into?"
When they arrived at the base, Gonzalez and the recruits were instructed to stand outside from 10 p.m. until dawn. No breaks. No sitting. Just eight hours of standing.
Boot camp was all about making Gonzalez comfortable with being uncomfortable. Sporadic meals, exhausting physical exercise, limited sleep, and demanding drill instructors who expected perfection in even the most mundane tasks. Everything was about taking the recruits to their physical and mental breaking points, because where they were going — Vietnam — would test each soldier in ways they could never possibly envision.
Gonzalez remembers the first time he was under fire. He was jumping out the back of a chopper, reinforcing a pinned down company, and heard the gunfire coming in his direction.
"You could hear the rounds going through the chopper," Gonzalez said. "I didn't look, just heard. I said, (...) they're shooting at us."
When he dropped into the rice paddy, the First Sergeant instructed him to take over the M60 machine gun and suppress fire coming from the tree line several hundred yards away.
"I said, 'Who's your gunner?' He says, 'Over there,' and points to a body bag, because that's what they go after is the gun," Gonzalez said. "The life expectancy of a gunner wasn't very long, something like 30 minutes."
Gonzalez rattles off several such examples. Rocket-propelled grenades that hammered the hill he was firing from, the round of an AK-47 exploding at his feet after he got up out of his hole in the morning, a volley of 36 artillery rounds the size of a man's torso battering his position.
"They were hitting all around us, and all I was doing was praying, thinking of my mom and my dad," Gonzalez said. "Somebody was watching out for me."
Others were not as fortunate.
Gonzalez recalls an instance in which he was walking in a line, firing at the tree line ahead. He heard the round coming, followed by the impact of the bullet into the assistant gunner next to him.
"I felt it jerk, and I look down, and he was hit (in the chest). I hadn't experienced watching somebody get hit, and it's a shock," Gonzalez said. "The things that go through your mind — you feel angry. You feel better him than me, but you feel sorry.
"I continued walking maybe 10 more feet, and Lieutenant told us to cease fire. I ran back to him, picked up his head, gave him a little bit of water. He died in my arms."
Gonzalez experienced the indescribable horrors of war that remain with him nearly 50 years later. Ambushes that cut down friends and soldiers beside him, near-death experiences too numerous to count, child soldiers as young as elementary school students.
"You see things you wish you hadn't seen," he said. "It really gets to you. I still think about it."
Gonzalez takes medication for nightmares to help him sleep, but he'll still catch himself waking up, drenched in sweat, hitting his pillow. His grandkids know not to startle him, and any loud noises, like those during Independence Day celebrations, trigger instinctive flashbacks.
"I've been with the wife, holding her hand as we were walking, and then all of a sudden, bang, you let off a firework, and I almost drag her with me to get down," Gonzalez said. "Any unexpected loud bang — firecrackers, fireworks — my heart starts going 100 miles per hour, and I want to get underneath something."
Back in Gervais, Gonzalez raised four children and multiple grandchildren, working nearly 35 years at the Blue Heron Paper Mill in Oregon City. One of his grandkids, a 14-year middle schooler, lives with him and plays for the local football team.
Gonzalez volunteers in the school district as a youth coach and currently serves on the Gervais City Council. He has told his story to several students at Gervais High School, who come to him, seeking to learn more about his service history. It's not something he could have done until recently.
"Up until the year 2000, when the Iraq War broke out, that's where most of us started coming out of our shell," he said. "We didn't talk about it."
Still, he mostly keeps his service history to himself. He doesn't talk to his kids about it unless they ask him, and doesn't tell others unless he's asked.
"I've seen the bad, the worst, and some of the good," he said.
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