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Interview with Arthur T. Baltazar [12/9/2014]

Cherryl Walker:

Here we go. Today is December 9th, 2014, and we are interviewing Arthur T. Baltazar at Chicago Public Library, Clearing Branch. Mr. Baltazar was born [birth date redacted].

Arthur T. Baltazar:

[birth date redacted].

Cherryl Walker:

[birth date redacted]. My name is Cherryl Walker, and I will be the interviewer. Kathie Grove will be the court reporter for this interview. Art, I would like to ask you just some quick questions.

Arthur T. Baltazar:

Sure.

Cherryl Walker:

Where were you born?

Arthur T. Baltazar:

I was born in Chicago.

Cherryl Walker:

Okay. And tell me about -- I would like for you to take and tell me about your family history and your military history.

Arthur T. Baltazar:

Okay. Being raised in Chicago, my mother is from Mexico City, and my father is Mexican descent. He arrived here from Colorado. My parents met, they were married. My mother graduated grammar school, high school, along with my father. They met, they got married. My mom was born in 1919, and later on I found out why she loves this country so much is because where she came from, it was beautiful here. So she's kind of laying it on us, you know, "Guys, this is our country. We love it."

Plus, my mother speaking Spanish all the time, none of us picked up on it. We don't know a word of Spanish. I wish I knew Spanish, but we don't. We're just raised like normal people. She said a person is a person. They're not a colored, they're just a person. So we got along good with a lot of people. But having nine of us boys and one girl, we always looked after each other. And we didn't have a lot of things like people have now; but, of course, a lot of people don't have 10 kids, either.

So, anyway, my brother Bob thought it would be good -- we have numbers for each one of us from one to 10. I'm number eight. My brother Bob is number two. Ed's number three. And we got this way from sending our mother birthday cards or putting a birthday card on her table, we would sign it, number eight, number seven, number six. Being in the military, my brothers would write to my mom. Sometimes they would sign their number on it.

Anyway, my brother Bob, he joined the Army. He served, I believe, as a medic. He served three years in Texas, and we saw him a few times having leaves. He came home to see us. My brother Eddie, he thought it was a good idea too, so he joined. My mother was behind my two brothers. He served, he went into repairing weapons. So he was sent to Germany for a year. So my brother Bob and Ed didn't see each other for maybe two years, had crossed paths. So by the time they returned home, my brother Larry -- Larry is number six -- so brother number six, Larry, decided he will join.

So Lawrence, he joined -- he did one year in VietNam. He stayed in the military for three years. Each one of the guys did 36 months. So he came home, I think, in 1965 or '66. I was a teenager in high school, and at that age you're really not up with dates or concerned about people being in the military. So I decided after high school I would go into electronic school. So I signed up for DeVry Tech. I went over to DeVry Tech, and I had a -- I got a draft card. I didn't know there was draft cards, but I had to register at the Draft Board. I got a -- I received the card, you know, for the military, and it said on there you're a student deferment because you're a full-time student. Meanwhile, the war in VietNam was going on.

I was 19 years old, and I said, wow, this is strange. So I got a letter -- and the letter is with Cherryl Walker -- and it states come down in July for a physical. So come around October, I think, 21st, I got a letter. It says, "Greetings, you have been inducted into the Army." It wasn't the Hall of Fame, it was the Army. So I called my three brothers and say, "What does this mean?" And it's got a date October 30th, 1967. He says, "You're drafted into the Army. You have to report." "Oh, wow."

So I had to stop going to school -- the reason why my draft status changed is because I switched from full-time school to part-time school, and the government said, well, you're not a full-time student and we need you. I said okay. So I looked at the other brothers and said, "You know, there's a lot of people going to Canada." He says, "Well, you're not going to Canada. You can do it; we did it." So, okay, let's go.

So I was married at the time when I left. I didn't exactly finish school because I had to do my duty. So after at few months' basic training, I got sent over to VietNam. I was very scared. I've seen a lot; I've seen enough. I watched buildings or barracks get rocketed. I watched our -- I was assigned to Engineer Hill. That is near Pleiku City in the central highlands. And the first thought was, boy, my brother Larry lied to me. He said it was like a country club when he went. He must have lied so I wouldn't be afraid. I said this is terrible.

And years later I talked to my brother Larry, and he said, "No, it wasn't. I didn't go through what you did." I said, "Wow, I didn't know that. I thought you lied to me just so I can get through this. But it was horrible." I said, "I couldn't take this." So being a little bitter after returning -- before I left, this is my wife (indicating). It was 23 days before heading over to VietNam we took this picture. And everybody is thinking -- a lot of people are thinking you may not come back. That was the thought then in 1968, how everybody thought. And after going through a lot of -- I mean, there's a lot of Vets out there that really caught hell a lot more than what I saw, but what I saw was enough. I didn't need to see any more. So I survived it, and when I came home, it was really weird because when I met my mother, my two brothers and my wife at the airport, I sat down in a chair -- well, before I got to O'Hare, I sat in Oakland Airport.

I sat down on a bench and had my uniform on, nice haircut, new uniform and shoes, and I looked at these people and I said, "How are you? What's going on in the world? I just got back from VietNam." No response, just walked away, like we don't want to be bothered, like I'm a nuisance to them. So that was my first experience. And when I got to O'Hare Field, I sat down in a chair, and there was a man on my right, a woman on my left. She was eating cookies or something. And I said, "So, what's going on in the world, sir? How's everything going?" And in VietNam, when you would lay down in your bed and dream, you would look at the world turning. It looked like -- because everybody there would say, "Hey, were you back" -- "Soldier, where are you from in the world?" And that's how they called the United States, "the world." And I kept that thought in my head and I used to sleep with it.

Wow, I'm -- I thought I was in another world. So the man on my right, he just ignored me and got up and walked away. And I looked to the left, and the woman on my left, she got up and walked away. I was like heartbroken. Nobody said nothing. Nobody said did you see action. Nobody asked if you were all right. Nobody asked you what kind of work are you going to continue to do now? And nobody cared. I couldn't believe it. And when I got home, nobody on my block cared. Unbelievable. I was so upset, I didn't know what to do. So you may not like this part, but this is how it was then. I took off my jacket, and I held it up and I ripped it all up. I threw it down and I kicked it. I said, "This is unbelievable. Nobody cares. I can't believe that nobody cares what we went through. Not just me, but all the Vets. Wow, this is" -- and the sad part is other guys are going there, and if I knew this, I wish I could tell them to be prepared, but I never knew this was going to happen. I never knew that I was going to have nightmares for the next 20 years. I didn't know that this was going to happen. This is unbelievable.

And all I hear -- I'm doing real well because my mind is strong through my family. I'm doing very well. And a lot of people say, "You got to move on. Go move on, you know, do whatever you have to do, but forget about it." "Go on," my family tells me. But let me bring you an example. This is 2014. I -- well, my career was fixing garage door openers for people. And every time -- I worked for Sears for 42 years. I would go to people's houses, and everybody has a five-gallon bucket in their garage. Everybody has a milk crate in their garage.

I stood around high school students in a garage and they had a big circle and somebody was very serious. They said, "Can you tell us something about Vietnam and this PTSD." "Yeah, I can." I said, "You put something in a bucket, you wash your car, you dump it. You take dirt in it the next day, you do your gardening. Maybe the next day you want to carry your tools in it, you want to put flowers in it. Anything you want to put in it, you can put it in it; tools, nuts, bolts, pipes. You dump it out, it's empty. You put it back on the shelf. Compare that to your brain, put that bucket -- treat it as a brain, okay? So what I did is I -- what I'm trying to get to is you empty it.

Well, I'm trying to say is I had a group of college -- high school students, girls and guys, and I said, "Let me ask each one of you, tell me your mom's birthday." They told me their mom's birthday. I went clockwise. I said, "I'm going to give you one minute," timed it. "Okay. What I want you to do during this minute is take it out of your head. Remove it." So I went to the first kid, I said, "Do you know your mom's birthday?" "Yeah." I went around. Nobody could erase it -- and today we call it delete -- nobody could take it out of their head. And I said, "Why not?" He says, "We don't know how." I said, "Well, now you know what I'm talking about." That's PTSD. How do you get it out of your head? I don't know, and you don't know. So now you understand what we're talking about.

You don't think about your mom's birthday until a week or two and then you say I got to get my mother something, and I got to sign it number eight. But this is in our head all the time, every day. I don't know how to get rid of it. I wish I knew. But that is what I'm trying to tell people. When you say move on -- the best thing to say to a Veteran when you see him, even if he wasn't in VietNam or any other war, as long as he has a uniform on, "Thank you for my freedom." That's all you need to say. You lift this guy way up. That's all you want to say to a Vet. When I needed help, my family -- there was a cry for help from VietNam Veterans when you return. After about two weeks, there is a cry for help we put out there. We don't know we're doing that, but we are putting out a cry for help. "I need help. Somebody help me. I can't sleep. I'm having nightmares. I can't get this out of my head."

Well, part of the reason why they don't pick up on it is because I was gone 13 months. Nobody knew me anymore. It's like you see a friend of yours all the time, and then all of a sudden he has a strange face, you say "What's wrong?" You know there's something wrong with this person. The people you work with, your constituents, anybody you see all the time, you know there's something wrong. But everybody failed to help me, and at the same time, I didn't ask for help because I thought, give it a month, it will go away. Give it another year. Give it five years. It doesn't go away. I'm still stuck with it. But I'm doing well. You know, I'm not going to hurt myself or I'm not looking for people to come and pat me on the back. Its over, but it's in my head. People say -- I've always heard this in the past. People say -- this is when I first came home for a few years. They said, "You know" -- I would hear people talking, and "I need to talk to you," and somebody would say, "Well, I'm over here."

You say well -- you always hear that phrase you cannot be in two places at once. I tell them, "No, that's a total lie. I found out when I would go to sleep, my body is here in our world in the United States. I'm in Chicago in my bed sleeping, but my brain is over in VietNam." How -- why is your body separated like that? And you go to bed every night, you know you're here, but yet your brain is over there.

So I used to talk to a lot of Veterans and a lot of Veterans when they got home were taking speed. Speed is a pill you take. Speed keeps you awake. You don't sleep. And some of the VietNam Vets are, "You need to go on speed. Do you dream every night when you go to sleep?" I says, "yeah, I do." They says, "Well, we got some a speed, and we know some guys that got speed. It doesn't cost you a lot of money. Take some speed, you'll stay awake, you won't even think about that stuff. If you start getting sleepy, you'll pop another one." "I said, "No, my brothers taught me to have a strong mind. I got to get through this. Okay."

And when you go in the shower, you go in the bathroom in the tub, you cry because you don't want anyone to see you cry. You go in the tub, you just cry. Tears run down my face because -- I don't know why I was crying, but I finally realized I was crying all the time in the tub when no one was around because nobody cared. And it was real sad for me that, wow, nobody even cares. Nobody even knocked on my door and said, hey, thank you for giving me freedom, protecting our country. You walk down the street, nobody said nothing. Everybody was protesting the war, saying let's get the soldiers out of there.

Guys in '69 were throwing their medals at the Capitol stairs. That's when I got home. I was so confused. But you do cry a lot in the bathroom when no one is around, not a shower because water covers it, just that you're alone. It's the only place you could go to be alone. And during the night for many years I would hear a little noise, I would fall out of bed and say, "Incoming. Move out, men." And my wife would say, "You're here in our bedroom. You're at home." She would talk to me real soft. "Relax, you're home, Art." And that used to -- I don't know why I did that, but I did it. And that explains to you why this stuff is in our head.

I think today, what we went through is -- children are treated for PTSD. If someone goes in their school and tries to hurt them or shoot somebody, they treat these people for PTSD. Soldiers that come home, they make sure they greet them at the airport. They make sure they get some type of coverage. Because of VietNam, they don't want to make that mistake. They say let's -- we screwed up VietNam as far as treating soldiers with PTSD. Any type of incident happens somewhere, they send experts there to talk to the people. They don't want them to lose their head. When I think about -- and I know it might sound crazy, but I'm not a licensed psychiatrist but I do have a good head on my shoulders, the way I put things.

When I would sit down and think if you got a glass of water, you drink it. If you want more, you go to the faucet, you fill it up, drink more. You just keep drinking water, you fill it up. If you're in the boxing ring and the fight is 15 rounds and nobody won and you're both wore out because that 15th round you're going to give it all you got and your trainer says, look, I need you to fight one more round, and it's like, I already gave it to you, I can't -- what I'm saying is I can't go no more, okay? There's -- water is you just keep filling it up, but in your head, as far as thinking, when you get back you're so sad that no one cared and you can't get rid of these nightmares so you want to end it.

And like I said, you could get more water, but you can't go no more. You just can't -- you're at the end of your rope. What do you do? There's nobody there to help me. And the only ones that helped me was my brothers because they would get my mind off of it. "Art, take it easy." And I would just tell them, "You know what? I can't go anymore. I'm wore out. My brain is wore out. I just don't know what to do now." And so I just got real tough with my mind and said, "I got to do this," and having different functions with my family. And when I returned home, my brother Bill had to go. I can't believe it. How many do you want? And now after him looking at the way I was acting, he was sweating bullets. He didn't want to go. And I didn't want him to go.

I thought maybe I'll go in his place and say I'm William; I'm not Art, I'm William. I'll go for him. I thought of that, but my mind just wasn't there. Now, when I got home I see my wife for the first time and my little guy, he's six months old, is the first time I got to see him. And that kind of helped cure me because I had a change in my life. But it was still difficult sleeping in a bed all by yourself and having this freedom and then all of a sudden you got a wife and a child.

It was good, it was real nice, but it was just -- there was nobody there like they do now. There's no cameramen, there's nobody to see this, witness this. So I got this in my mind. This is in my mind. This is great. And since, I believe, '71 when my brother came home, my youngest brother Bill, he's number 10, we have -- nobody knows that five brothers served the United States Army. Nobody knows this. And I want all of you as citizens to know this. Plus being of Mexican descent and with this immigration thing coming on, it's like you're going to come here to this country, all foreigners -- I know they're talking about which border, but this is all foreigners -- you can serve this country too. This is your country, you can serve it. And if you cannot serve it, so be it.

World War II and World War I Vets served for my freedom. So my five brothers went into the military, and we gave everybody freedom for this generation. Now it's somebody else's turn to go. But we're not recognized, and it's a long many years. And this flag is great (indicating). I like to buy this flag. I don't know if I talked about it before. But prisoners of war, that was the guys that suffered, MIA, missing in action. It does say "You are not forgotten," but right here on this blank space it should say fifty-eight two thousand plus killed. That's what it should say on this flag. We can't forget. And it's a shame that we have to come forward with this, but that's what I have to do.

And these are five dog tags that I got hanging in my house (indicating). They're hanging in my house. These represent each one of us brothers. There's five dog tags here, one for each one of us. I've never seen this many dog tags in somebody's home. This is -- we're proud of this. Okay, maybe we didn't earn medals, maybe we weren't heros, Congressional Medal of Honor or anything, but we served our country, and we're proud of this. And when I talk to -- try to reach the mayor, try to reach the governor, try to reach Fox News, try to reach different channel news, try to reach my congressman, my alderman, I just want them to know to get this story.

So I had to go on my own and try to get this story, and I wrote a letter to the President and Michelle Obama, which I'll read to you, okay, and the President -- there's a receipt in here stating that they received it, they received the -- my letter, but nobody has opened it, and all these people that I was contacting, I just want them to ask the President can you read this letter from the Baltazar brothers? It's a rare story.

And this is what I wrote to my President: "Dear Mr. President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama: For once" -- the title is, "For Once a Good Patriotic Story." "I should have shared this story with you many years ago. I wish I had this courage years ago to write. "My mother was born in 1919 in Mexico City, Mexico, came to this country when she was a small child about nine years old. She completed -- she became a citizen right away. She graduated from grammar school and high school, met my father in Chicago. They were both married. My mom had 10 children, nine boys, one girl. My parents raised us in the projects on 43rd Street and Cicero, which was like low income families. My parents are Mexican descent, spoke Spanish and English very well, taught us to get a good education and love our country. "Well, we do love our country. Here is our story: Five brothers out of nine served in the Army for our country.

Since World War II, have you ever heard of this? My brother Robert served in Texas three years as a medic. Edward served two years in the States, one year in Germany, a total of 36 months. Lawrence served two years in the States, one year in VietNam a total of 36 months. Arthur, that's me, the good looking one, I served six months in the States, 13 months in VietNam. William served two years in the States."

Now, I only did 18 months because the government let me out five months early for being in VietNam and having only five months left to go, they let me go home. But I didn't have -- I was discharged properly like my brothers. "We contributed to our country and are a proud family. Somehow I wish there was a way the rest of Americans can know this. Our family was never honored, only with freedom. Somehow I feel there is just something missing, like a handshake from the President. My dream is to shake your hand, Mr. President Obama. Please help." And in my letter that I sent them I wrote, "P.S., happy birthday, First Lady."

So, Mr. President, can you just read our letter for us? I would be happy if you did that. It will make you proud. I never received any of my medals from serving my country. And later on, going for PTSD help through the VA, I went to Taylor Street and Ogden, my caseworker helped me quite a bit. We've gone through different channels. I had to go to a psychiatrist, I got to have somebody look at my hearing, a lot of different things.

It's just everything is slowing down. I'm trying my best to get compensated from the government. So, in the meantime, I explained to them I had four other brothers that served; they seem to be okay. I said, "I just want a little help." And -- so I thought it would be best to write to my President to get this boosted up. But since I haven't heard anything and I went through political people to help me, nothing's happened. I'm just more about the letter and my five brothers being represented -- recognized. So I got a form I filled out. The VA says, "It's going to take you two years to get your medals. Go to your Congressman, and he'll ask you to fill out a sheet. Give it to him, and it will take 18 months instead of two years." I said, "Well, that's fine. I waited 40-something years, two more won't hurt. Wow, three weeks later, I got my medals at the door. Knock on the doors, UPS or the mail left them at my door. Nobody said thank you or anything, they just left them by the door. So I opened them up, got my medals -- let me get a picture. I'll show you what they are like. Let's see. Where are they? Here they are, all my medals: Expert with a Rifle, Serving the People of VietNam, Civil Defense Medal, Good Conduct Metal, and VietNam ribbon with the medal and some Bronze Stars for, I guess, being in some battles.

I didn't know -- I wasn't aware I earned these, but looking back, thank you. (Indicating.) And there is a picture I want to show you of my five brothers. Here is a picture, Bob, Ed, Larry, that's me, and Bill (indicating). Now, I don't know of anybody that has this record. We own it. I don't know since the five Sullivan brothers in World War II were all killed for our freedom, but it seems like we have the record and nobody knows.

So when I receive my letter and I receive my medals at my door, I was so happy. And I had a little tear in my eye, but the teardrop, it's an old one from 40 years ago. So being number eight in my family and having eight brothers, the title of this letter is "Number Eight to Eight." And I'll read it to you what I -- I sent my brothers a picture of all my medals, this picture here (indicating), and I sent them a picture of me holding the medals to let them know what this is about. And I showed them a letter from my Congressman, showed them all the papers I had to fill out, and this is what I wrote to my brothers: "Growing up, I owe thanks to my eight brothers, teaching me who are the good kids from the bullies, good guys from the enemy, teaching me how to survive in this world; most important, developing a strong mind.

Serving the Baltazar family, without you guys these pictures are impossible." And I wrote here, "40 years later, we'll take them." And my final statement to my eight brothers is, "They should be yours. Number eight." That's how I signed it. So I'm just saying that any time I see a soldier walking down the street in a uniform, I get out of my car, I shake his hand, and I say, "Thank you for my freedom," and he feels so good about it. But my family is proud of us. Our family is growing so big. I want the rest of my family to know what their uncles and grandpas have gone through. And I want to tell you this story while I'm alive. I don't want my son or grandkids telling you this story, so...

Cherryl Walker:

Art, thank you. But I have some questions for you that are a part of your story.

Arthur T. Baltazar:

Sure.

Cherryl Walker:

What was the highest rank that you achieved?

Arthur T. Baltazar:

I was an E-4. E-4 is like equivalent to like, in my field, a Specialist 4.

Cherryl Walker:

Do you recall the first day of service?

Arthur T. Baltazar:

Yes, I do. Very first day. I was on the train from VanBuren Street, cooped up in the little compartment with a little bed. It's like not much bigger than a phone booth. It looked like a rolltop desk. You lift up, pulled the -- there was a little skinny mattress, and I slept in there. And the ceiling was like this close to my face (indicating), and just thinking in my mind, what's going on. I didn't know what to think. And the only thing I heard from my brothers, "Art, do not raise your hand and volunteer for anything, and just follow orders." Because when I was in Ft. Lewis, Missouri, we were standing four platoons and a truck pulled up, two-and-a-half ton truck pulled up, and they had asked, "We need volunteers. Can anybody drive stick?" A lot of guys, "all right, yeah, I can drive stick," a bunch of guys. "All right. Anybody can drive stick, pull over here." So the rest of us were excused. We had to go back, clean our room, shine our shoes, and do whatever we were supposed to do. And as I turned around to see what was going on, they lifted up a big tarp in the back of the two-and-a-half ton truck, and they gave them all a push broom. "Here, drive that stick and sweep." So that is what I learned from my brothers, do not raise my hand.

Cherryl Walker:

And this is when you were in Missouri at where?

Arthur T. Baltazar:

At Fort -- in Missouri. What was the name of it?

Cherryl Walker:

Leonard Wood?

Arthur T. Baltazar:

Fort Leonard Wood, yes.

Cherryl Walker:

Is that where you took your basics?

Arthur T. Baltazar:

Yeah, I was there for -- they call it zero weeks. Zero weeks means getting your shots, your haircut, miscellaneous things, getting your gear, and then after two weeks then you start your basic training.

Cherryl Walker:

And where did you go for that, Fort Leonard Wood?

Arthur T. Baltazar:

Yes, Fort Leonard Wood.

Cherryl Walker:

And where'd you go for your advanced training?

Arthur T. Baltazar:

When I finished there, I went to Fort Gordon, Georgia and I was told I was taking -- my MOS is 31M20. 31M20 is a radio relay operator. And one of the reasons I was assigned to that unit is because of my background of going to DeVry Tech, learning how to be an electronic -- you know, repairing radios. So that's why I fell into that area, and they sent me there. And I was there for 12 weeks, and I believe we had three weeks of VietNam training for like two weeks, going to a village, a mock village. So obviously I knew where I was going after that. And when I was assigned to VietNam to Engineer Hill, I never operated a radio. We strictly pulled guard duty. They already had guys to work what's called the communications bunker. They worked in there. None of us ever worked there. We just did duty and then pulled perimeter guard on the perimeter of the barbed wire and just guarded it.

Cherryl Walker:

How did you get to VietNam?

Arthur T. Baltazar:

We -- when I had to go May 8th, I had to report to O'Hare Field. I took my -- got on a plane. They sent me to Fort Dix, New Jersey, and then the next day we flew from Fort Dix, New Jersey to Oakland, California, right across the U.S. Why didn't you just send me there in the first place? So from there I got sent -- we took the plane to Hawaii, and from Hawaii we took the plane to Guam, and from Guam we landed in VietNam.

Cherryl Walker:

Where in VietNam?

Arthur T. Baltazar:

I landed in Bien Hoa, and then we went to -- let's see. The next airport was a few miles away. Bien Hoa, Tuy Hoa, I think it was, we flew to, and then from Tuy Hoa, we flew all the way to Pleiku right on -- it was like the border of Cambodia and VietNam, and it's called the central highlands, and that's where we got shipped to. So I remained there for the rest of my duty. I was assigned to leave there in May, but the Colonel -- or the Captains approached us and they said anybody who has five months left, when they leave VietNam, you can go home. Now, two of my comrades that I met last year in August in South Carolina -- or North Carolina, they had to pull their whole duty. And one of the guys went home December '68, and another friend of mine, he went home January 1969. And after they left, there was a -- they piloted a program stating if you have five months left, you can go home. I had 23 days left. I said I'll stay here 23 days and go home. Because in my mind, I can't take this Army stuff after leaving there. So we had guys that had like a week. All they had to do is stay one week, and they said no, you're nuts, I'm getting out there. And then we had guys that had eight months in the military and they just -- it took them a week to decide, do I stay three months and go home, or do I elect to serve my time in Texas? And I don't know what happened to them because I left. After my 23 days, I left. And they needed to find out -- they needed an answer from you as soon as possible, and I told them that very second, I will stay the 23 days. And I was so happy I did that. And after being home about -- I had orders to go to Fort Hood, Texas, for five months after a 23-day stay. And I said, "No, I will go home." And so they -- I didn't have to go to Fort Hood, Texas. They let me go home. About a year -- a little over a year later, I get drafted again. And I said, "What the -- how can I get drafted? I already went." So it was a -- they just pick guys at random. And I -- they told me to come back for a few months for more training. Ut-uh, I'm not going to go. So as I read the letter, it stated -- I wish I had it now -- you got to take this to your employer. And when I took it to -- I started a job at Sears. It was about a year-and-a-half later. They took the paper and they said -- they called a special person from personnel, today they call it HR, but it was personnel. A woman came down, she say, "I specialize in this. What it's stating that we have to fill it out that you are working full-time, you're not like on the street" -- it's homeless now, but then it was a bum. "You're not a bum, so I'll fill it out and send it in, but I cannot give it back to you." So I never heard from them again, and I was happy. I don't think I would have went, anyway.

Cherryl Walker:

When you got off the plane, what was your first thought when you got in VietNam?

Arthur T. Baltazar:

In VietNam? Well, when I first got off the plane, my whole body was wet. Somebody sprayed WD-40 on me, and it was all wet. And that was the first thing was, wow, I'm wet. And they escorted us with -- it was during the night, and they escorted us with a school bus. And when I got on the school bus, in front of me was a three-quarter truck with a guy with a .50 caliber sitting on it, and then there was the school bus, another patrol behind that bus -- all of the buses were lined up, and the guy at the very end had a -- I couldn't quite see it because it was dark. And this is strange, but when they tell you to get on the bus, you're going to go somewhere, as soon as you walk on the bus, you think, where do I sit? Do I sit by the window? Do I sit by the aisle? In case something happens, I could dive in the aisle. But somebody's got to sit by the window. And it had all thick, heavy, wavy wire on it, and I guess for the -- and we were trained, you know, to go there. So I'm thinking, well, grenades or something, you know. So it worked out. And when we got there -- they went through that country like you wouldn't believe. They were speeding like you wouldn't believe. And as we were getting off the school bus, they said, "You see them guys laying on the sand bags firing? Run over there and dive in the dark." "Oh, really?" And there was a building damaged. Two rockets just hit it. That's this picture right here (indicating), and I dated it May 13, '68. This building, the second floor caved in, wounded 19, and I think three were killed on the bottom. The rocket hit there (indicating), and I said, oh, Lord, I am in -- this is scary. I mean, there's nothing you think about, you just -- I don't know what you think. You just -- wow. And it blew up the whole building, and then we had to wait until it got bright out and everything was clear. And so in the morning we got our big bags, and we were carrying them. And this is kind of funny: There were a bunch of guys who are veterans sitting there. I don't know, they were sitting on a step or something. And we're carrying our bags like this over our shoulder, and they said, "Hey, guys, watch out for the ice." So we went around -- all of us went around and we looked and it's no ice, this is dirt. And we turned around and said, "That was good, guys. That was good. They knew we were afraid. We were rookies, new incoming soldiers, and they got us good. But we laughed about it because those are our guys, you know. And we said, "That was good. I liked it." And we actually walked around. That was different.

Cherryl Walker:

How did you keep in touch with your family?

Arthur T. Baltazar:

We had a -- we just wrote letters, and our -- I would write where you stick a stamp in the corner, if you just put 96318, the mail was free. It would just send everybody letters. And so I kept up, but after a while when you write letters, I don't know what to talk about. I know I didn't talk about any of these mortars hitting us. I didn't tell my mother anything about this stuff. And I lied, I told them that we played baseball and we lost and I struck out. You know, we play a lot of baseball, I'm not as good as I thought I was. And then tell mom, yeah, we played a game of volleyball. We lost. And I don't know what else to tell them. You just run out of things to say.

And you get -- the saddest part, I'll tell you, it's funny but yet it isn't, the mailman would come with his bag, and it was -- man, it reminded me of a hungry dog or cat when you're opening their cat food and the cat is jumping all over the place. Come on, give me that food. Well, the mailman would stand on, I think, his truck, the bed of his truck, and everybody would crowd around. "You got a letter for me?" "Just be patient, I'll read it." He would give -- call their names and give letters. And all the rest of us that didn't get mail would have our heads down. Oh, man, it was a sad day when you didn't get mail.

But if you were -- if somebody would write you a letter and a week later they would write you a letter and they would like say so-and-so had a baby, I don't know his name yet, but I'll tell you his name the next time I write you, and that other letter you would get -- the second letter you would get first, and then you would read it and be confused, but you enjoyed reading it. And then when my son was born, the Red Cross came to the Hill and looked for me. I don't know how long it took them, a day or two to find me, and then they told me, "You're a dad." That was nice. That was the best news I ever got over there.

And then what I really liked was the Red Cross, the Red Cross came and played -- another time and they played a lot of games with us. It was so nice of them to do that. They had us pair up in teams and play goofy games, and it was so nice. Sunday they did that, and it was great. And I got a little pouch -- I gave it to my son -- it's a little folder, you open it, it's got papers in it and envelopes and pencils. And a grammar school I think in North Dakota sent this to me. Oh, I was so grateful. I wish I would have wrote them back, but the communication then is not like it is now. You just text them and they get it. So I saved it and gave it to my son. He's got it in a display cabinet.

So then a school in -- I think it's in Missouri. My niece teaches in Missouri, and I just received 21 letters from third-grade students, and they all said Happy Veteran's Day and they wrote something nice. So I wrote back to each boy and girl, and I put it simple so they understand. I printed it, skipped lines like they did. I told them, "Thank you very much. If your parents are Vets, tell them 'thank you for my freedom.'"

It was the greatest thing ever. And then I got 21 stacks of comic books, wrapped them all up in wrapping paper and put all their names on it, sent it in the box yesterday, and hopefully they'll get it by Friday. And I wrote a note to the teacher, "Please let them read my notes -- my letter first and then give them these packages because I don't want it to overtake what we're trying to do. Tell the students when you read these books that big smile you have on your face is the same smile I had when I read your letters to a Vet. Going through this -- and now my son is a famous cartoonist, best in the U.S. So going through this and having a good head on my shoulder and being -- always joking around, he became -- he is a very famous artist right now. He does all the cartooning for children. He's got like the same personality. And it's great. I love it.

Cherryl Walker:

Is there any -- did you do anything, like did you get a leave when you were over there? Did you do anything for entertainment other than the Red Cross?

Arthur T. Baltazar:

We had groups from Australia come in and entertain us. That was great. I did take some pictures with them. It was so nice. And there was actually -- the only thing you can do is go in the town, maybe shop, look around. There is nothing to do there. You know, you could go into the -- we weren't allowed to go in the clubs. I mean, we could go in the clubs, but being stationed on Engineer Hill, 6:00 p.m. was the curfew. You had to be back. And if you can't make it back, you have to stay at another camp.

You can't be out of the gate after 6:00 o'clock. And so the rest was just listening to music in the club with the other guys, and that was it. And they had some beer, but it wasn't -- it didn't have a lot of alcohol in it. But some of the guys that were down, you know, they smoked the wrong thing, but what are you going to do? I'm not their parent, you know. So hopefully the guys that did that stopped when they returned. But as far as going home, you couldn't leave. There's no way you can leave.

The only -- it has to be a tragedy. And one of my buddies was engaged. And he was from Omaha, Nebraska. His wife -- his fiancee was killed in a car accident, and I mean he was crying tears. He knew that -- well, he's not going to get married. But nobody bothered him. They tapped him on the shoulder, meaning you need us, we're here. But he didn't get to go home. You have to lose somebody in the family -- you lose a brother they won't let you go home. You had to lose a mother or a father before they let you go home, or if you're married and you lose your wife. And one of the interesting things I did come across, there was a soldier who was there at 29 years old, and I said -- we finally sat down and talked, and I said, "I'd like to talk to you for a minute."

I said, "You know, you're an older guy. How old are you?" He said, "I'm 29 years old." I said, "Well, with this war going on and not knowing where you're going to be sent, what made you join to come to this war? I mean, look it, I don't want to be here. I wish I was home. And you just -- you didn't have to come here because you're 29 years old."

He said, "My daughter needs a heart operation. I don't have insurance. She's four years old, and she needs a heart" -- I don't think they -- I don't know if they had transplants then. He said she needs a heart operation, he can't afford it, so he joined the military so that that would be paid for. So that was a great sacrifice for his daughter. And today, I wish I could tell his daughter this story, and she would understand. But he might have told her by now. But I had a reunion in 1999.

30 years later I met everybody in Springfield, Missouri because it was centrally located for all the Veterans to meet, and it was great. And all the while I was driving with my wife, I kept thinking I hope these guys don't talk about all this stuff. You know what? We need to forget. You don't forget, but it's not what we want to be there for. Not one person talked about it. Everybody -- we met the wives, we traded phone numbers and addresses. Everybody touched on it a little bit. It was Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and we had a wonderful time.

Cherryl Walker:

And what company were you in, again?

Arthur T. Baltazar:

I was in the 167th Signal Company, and we were a signal outfit. We had to keep communications. But that was where I was on Engineer -- it's what they call Engineer Hill. And so I don't know exactly what they did in the bunker because I was never in it. And so that was my experience being there.

Cherryl Walker:

What message would you like to leave for future generations who view this?

Arthur T. Baltazar:

Well, anybody that reads this, like I said, if you have to go for your country, be proud. Somebody has to go and fight. Somebody -- you may not be fighting. You might -- there might be a soldier right now in Afghanistan and his rifle jams, he sends it back to the U.S. You have to repair it. So you're part of this war, so be proud. And a very important message to me is when you see a Vet, just tell them, "Thank you for my freedom." It feels so good. You don't need to ask them where were you, who did you kill, or did you lose a friend. Just tell them, "Thank you for my freedom." They feel real good. And -- but I really want the nation to know, five brothers -- it's like it should be called the Army of five. It's like a restaurant. You go in there, we want a table for six; we want a table for three. How about Army of five? That's what we want to be known as, Army of five, and we're proud.

Cherryl Walker:

Is there anything that we haven't discussed that you feel needs to be discussed?

Arthur T. Baltazar:

I just kind of want to know why my President is not getting to my letter. And as far as anything we -- no, I just -- more of the thing that the people in this nation should know, when a soldier returns, sit down and talk to the man and see if he needs help. If he says no, give him the help anyway. Every time you sit down and talk to a Veteran, you make him -- you heal him because he don't bottle it up. My problem with the VA counselors was, "You bottle it up, Art." I said, "I know, but everybody says move on." He said, "You can't bottle it up." This was back in the '80s. He said, "Finally let people know." I said, "I will." But you're sitting there waiting for these people to come up to you and say, hey, let's talk. Just sit down and talk to a Vet, and don't change the subject. Don't get up and say, I got to go put soap in the dishwasher; or, hold on, I got to go to my little guy, he's crying. Don't do that. Spend all your time with a Vet, and just talk to him and just ask him a -- you don't need to ask him questions, just say how are you doing since you left the war, and let him spill his guts, because that helps. And don't -- I feel like you shouldn't ask a Vet how many guys did you kill or who did you watch die. Just ask him, "How was it?" And people say, "Would you do it again?" "No, I already did it." So it's great.

Cherryl Walker:

Well, I always end my interview with I'd like to thank you for serving our country; but, Art, from this interview on, I'm going to say thank you for my freedom.

Arthur T. Baltazar:

Oh, you're welcome.

Cherryl Walker:

And I would also like to say thank you for allowing me to be the one to interview you today.

Arthur T. Baltazar:

Oh, it's great. I wanted you to follow up on this because I know this would be a lot of credit for you having five, making history like this.

Cherryl Walker:

Well, thank you.

Arthur T. Baltazar:

You're welcome.

 
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  October 26, 2011
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