Liz Alarcón: We want to give you all some insight into this episode. Charlie, do you want to tell everybody the back story?
Charlie Garcia: Yeah. So this was one of the first stories that we ever worked on together just after we started the show. And it was supposed to be about the story of Roy Benavides, a Latino soldier who earned the Medal of Honor in Vietnam, and how, since the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer, there have been calls to change the name of Texas’ Fort Hood to Fort Benavidez. And we were almost finished with the episode. And then something happened.
Liz Alarcón: Yeah, something really terrible happened. A young Mexican-American woman named Vanessa Guillén, she was a soldier at Fort Hood actually assaulted by her superior and then murdered by a fellow soldier. This news was obviously devastating, and it reminded us of the horrors that happened within the U.S. military and that actually very few cases like Vanessa’s end up making the news given the tragedy and the ongoing investigations to get to the bottom of the murder. We decided to pause on producing the episode as we processed and listen to Vanessa’s family, as well as her hearing from many other Latinos who were sharing their experiences with assault and abuse in the military. A year later, we still want to tell the story of Roy Benavidez, but we’re approaching this episode with a wider lens to make room for the complicated relationship nuestra gente has with the armed forces.
Carlos De La Cruz: My name is Carlos De La Cruz. I was an intelligence officer. With the defense intelligence agency. prior to that, I had seven awesome years as a the Sergeant the united States army as a human intelligence collector.
Liz Alarcón: To help wrap our heads around all of this. I decided to talk to one of my best friends from high school who was part of the military. We’ve stayed close to these last 15 years, except for the chapter of his life when he was enlisted. It’s part of his career that I’m not too familiar with because I didn’t really want to know, and he really couldn’t share much, either. So this is a conversation I’m really curious to have.
Here’s something I don’t know about you, did you have any nicknames in the army?
Carlos De La Cruz: DLC. Cause De La Cruz was too hard for white people.
Liz Alarcón: There you go. There you go. That’s what I was looking for.
Carlos De La Cruz: I make fun. I make fun of, but that way, just because he, you know, he was, he was a white NCO who said that, dude from Texas. Missing a couple teeth, he’s he’s, he’s been blown a couple, too many times. But he’s a great guy.
Liz Alarcón: I remember your stories, where you would share with me, in your immediate circle of people and, and your peers you’re the only one. And I remember you’re saying, people thought you were African-American. That identity piece, I’m super curious to hear more about how you navigated being a minority within a minority, within a minority, given your role.
Carlos De La Cruz: I’ll start off by saying that the beauty of the army, the part that I enjoyed the most about the army is the amount of diversity that’s within the army, and the fact that no one cares really, no one really cares about the color of your skin. It’s about the mission. But on several occasions, I had to defend my Hispanicness.
Liz Alarcón: What were the, some of the things that you had to explain about your Hispanic identity when you were in the army?
Carlos De La Cruz: Uh, that the Dominican Republic is not a province in Mexico. That not all Latinos are the same. Right. Not all of us speak the same dialect of you will, uh, have Spanish, um, that, that we are all different and we have our own cultural differences.
Liz Alarcón: Did you ever feel discriminated against because you were Latino?
Carlos De La Cruz: Not obviously not. It wasn’t in the forefront.
Liz Alarcón: But you feel some sort of tension there that you were not the same.
Carlos De La Cruz: There’s systemic racism within the system of the army. And it’s not because there is someone consciously pulling the strings to make it racist for this particular say, sect of people or this unit of people it’s not, it’s not like that. It’s just certainly kind of people historically have been promoted at certain rates than others. For instance, within the officer ranks, everyone kind of knows you are not going to make it to a four star general if you didn’t go to West Point.
Liz Alarcón: And there are very few Latinos at West Point, and there are very few people of color who go to West Point and.
Carlos De La Cruz: Women, very very few women who go who go to West Point. So. It’s one of those things that it’s just systemically, it ends up kind of being that way, but person to person interaction we all we all recognize that the uniform, the flag is the most important. And at the end of the day, when the bullets are flying, and hurting your brother no matter what color it is, of yours, no matter what color of where she’s from. You go and you do whatever you can to save them.
Liz Alarcón: You know, I, I want to be as inspired and as optimistic about the army as you’re being with these anecdotes that you’re sharing, can’t help, but remember that Vanessa Guillén is no longer here with us because of the tragic murder after the sexual harassment that was unfound, uh, that and many other women are experiencing within the army. And so, again, as someone on the outside, It’s really hard to forget about how Latinos are being treated within the system. You know, 16% of active duty members who are Latino, uh, report, not only sexual harassment, but discrimination at really high rates, only 8% of those who are Latino reach officer ranks, which is what you were just sharing with us. Right. And this past year, we’ve heard story after story, after story of women, especially Latinas coming out in support of family, because we are not hearing enough about that ugly side of the army.
Carlos De La Cruz: The first thing I’ll say is I am Vanessa Guillen 100%. I think I, I became witting of, of what is going on around the may timeframe a couple of days after she disappears when the family starts going on Twitter. My first thought was I wasn’t surprised. I remember we were, we were home on a Friday night. And I was throwing a get together for my buddies and a sister unit lost a pair of night vision goggles at one of one of the ranges on Fort Lewis. And everyone in the batallion, about 1500 soldiers was called into work at 9:30 at night. I wonder when Vanessa disappeared and at four o’clock, she doesn’t show up to formation, if there was a similar call in that unit. I am willing to put everything on the line that there was not. She wasn’t night vision goggles. She was just a private.
Liz Alarcón: And there were so many women who said that they did speak up, Carlos, in their moment and that weren’t paid attention. And that due diligence we’re talking about is the bottom of the funnel. I would say, is there a barrier at the top of that funnel at that first reporting of an incident, do you think that people in the army feel comfortable speaking up when there’s an issue?
Carlos De La Cruz: No.
Liz Alarcón: Why?
Carlos De La Cruz: Because in some way, shape or form, it comes against the mission. I know that Sergeant so-and-so the best person at this particular task, but he’s doing things he’s not supposed to. me not say anything because we need them. What is this going to do for my own personal record in my in my own personal advancement? But there’s still a human factor, right. One of the best, lessons and more beautiful thing that I find about the army is the comradery between soldiers and the the fact that you should be a buddy battle, that’s what we call each other battle buddies. My my responsibility to to care for my buddy.
Liz Alarcón: For Vanessa, who was her buddy?
Carlos De La Cruz: The system wasn’t. The chain of command wasn’t. Due diligence wasn’t. So who was her buddy? No one.
Liz Alarcón: What do you think has to change so that people like Vanessa are protected and are given the same camaraderie and respect
Carlos De La Cruz: When you’re hearing rumors and you have suspicions that things are wrong, taking the time to get to the bottom of it. And if it’s nothing, it’s nothing, that’s fine. It was worth it. And if your unit is a work environment people don’t feel safe enough to come to you as a commander, then you have a problem and you will fail.
Liz Alarcón: There is no true justice for Vanessa Guillén. Justice would mean that she’d be alive today. There has, however, been progress on bipartisan legislation in her honor. The I Am Vanessa Guillén Act is a bill in the House of Representatives that would reform the Army’s sexual assault and sexual harassment prevention plans and require independent professionals to conduct harassment investigations. The Vanessa Guillén, Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, is up for consideration in the Senate. It would change how a service member is prosecuted under the military justice system. It aims to improve training on sexual assault response and living accommodations on bases. Vanessa’s story will never be forgotten. She’s already motivated us to act and prevent another soldier’s life from ending like hers.
We’re going to switch gears here to another story we wanted to talk about. One of hope, inspiration and someone who I know has really inspired you, Carlos, the famous Roy Benavides.
Carlos De La Cruz: To me, he is the top, the premiere. When you walk through, um, a special forces battalion, and you walk in through the front door, you’re going to see his picture in the hallway. For me, when I decided to go special operations, he was a very beautiful thing to find because I saw one of me doing that. And it was something that empowered me to believe I can do it too.
Liz Alarcón: Roy Benavidez had a tough upbringing. He grew up in Lindenau, Texas, a little town, about 200 miles from the Mexican border. It’s the kind of town with a post office, a general store, and not much else when he was born in 1935, there were less than 60 residents there.
Charlie Garcia: His father, who’s a Mexican farmer and his mother, a Yaqui Indian, both die by the time Roy is eight. So he and his brother have to go live with their aunt, uncle, and eight cousins in El Campo. But in El Campo, he would see signs outside of stores saying No Blacks or Mexicans. White folks in town would sometimes throw quarters on the street and laugh at children, fighting over them. As for Roy and his siblings, they’d spend their days working in cotton fields from sunrise to sunset, and hungry.
Liz Alarcón: There reached a point where he had enough of living that way. He decided to get out the only way he knew how. Here’s Roy.
Roy Benavides: I dropped out of school and I ran away from home. I’m not proud of that. I needed to learn a skill. I need an education. Well I was too old to go back to school, I didn’t want to return back. So joined the Texas National Guard. Then I heard about the airborne. I heard about that extra pay that you get for jumping out of airplanes. So I qualified to go to jump school at Fort Benning, Georgia, but the darn recruiter never told me once the training was like for every mistake that you make, you do pushups.
Liz Alarcón: Despite all those pushups, Roy’s a pretty happy guy. He found a home in the military. And for the first time he felt stability and purpose in his life. He was sent to Korea, then Germany, and eventually came home to marry his longtime girlfriend. Things were looking up.
Charlie Garcia: Yeah, so things are finally going well for Roy. But by this point, it’s 1965. The Cold War is in full fury, and the conflict in Vietnam is boiling over. The U S is supporting the Southern Vietnamese government, which is being overrun by communists from the North, so the army sends soldiers and advisors to train the local militias. One of those advisers is Roy.
Carlos De La Cruz: He’s an educator. He is a brother. He is a leader of hundreds Vietnamese people who become soldiers and who become militia. He is leading them along with his team. To defend their Homeland.
Liz Alarcón: Okay. Let’s back up. For a sec. Our involvement in the Vietnam war was an utter disaster. Our military presence in that country dragged on and on, and tens of thousands of lives were lost because of it. We could talk for days about US imperialism. In fact, we’ve touched on us imperialism in Latin America and other episodes. It’s wrong. US warmongering has caused disastrous conditions across the world, and as my team and I often discuss, ironically it’s in part, what has fueled the massive migration to the U S from Central and South America. It’s really complicated. We’re no fans of war here at Pulso, but we are fans of nuestra gente, and Roy is worth celebrating.
Charlie Garcia: So Roy is in Southern Vietnam he’s in charge of training the local soldiers. But as the war creeps closer, he’s becoming more and more involved. And while on a patrol alone, deep in the jungle, he takes a step that will change his life. He steps on a landmine. A group of Marines hear the explosion and come running to find Roy unconscious and bleeding. He’s rushed into surgery. evacuated back to a military hospital in Texas. There, he’s told by doctors that he’ll never walk again and he’ll have to be discharged from the military. His future is bleak, not being useful to the army, and he’s afraid of becoming a burden to his family. But Roy being who he is, has other plans.
Roy Benavides: At night, I would slip out of bed and crawl to a wall using my elbows, my chin. My back would killing them, be crying, but I’d set myself against the wall. I’d stand there and move my toes right and left. Every single chance I got. The nurses would catch me sometimes, they would chew me out give me a pill, sleeping pill, put me to sleep. I was determined to walk. Nine months later, Speaker4: here comes my medical discharge paper. I jumped out of bed and I stood up right before him and I moved just a little bit. He said, Sergeant, I’m sorry, even if you can stand up, you never be able to walk. If you walk out of the room, I’ll tear the papers up.
Liz Alarcón: And that’s exactly what he did. Months later, he walked out of the hospital with his wife by his side. The Army sends Roy to a desk job back at base in Texas, he’s determined to get back to Vietnam. He spends the next few years training, rebuilding his body, studying tactics and field manuals. Then he undergoes the toughest training in the military operations.
Carlos De La Cruz: He becomes a Green Beret and to give a little bit more insights into what Green Berets are. They’re not just tankers. They’re not just shooters. They can do it all. They’re not SWAT teams, if you will. They are the premier fighting force in the United States Army. That is where the true professionals, the true masters of their craft to go to do better than just being a soldier to actually make a really big impact on whatever it is that they’re touching.
Liz Alarcón: A few months later, he’s back in Vietnam. His code name is Tango Mike Mike or TMM, which stands for that mean Mexican. TMM is deployed near the Cambodia Vietnam border, where he’ll face his greatest test. There had been reports of enemy soldiers sneaking across to attack. Roy was attending mass when he heard the SOS call.
Roy Benavides: I heard on the radio like a popcorn machine. Then I heard a voice, get us out of here. Get us out of here. Come in and get us out quick. And I saw some helicopter pilot running through the flatland scrambling. I ran ride behind him. It was an instant reaction. I saw a bag of medical supplies, picked it up, went over to my helicopter, got one the helicopter, we followed their controller to guidance. And he said, you can’t go in there. You can’t go in. It’s too hot. Little did I know that I would six hours in hell.
Liz Alarcón: Roy arrives to a desperate scene. The group walked right into the middle of a thousand enemy soldiers. From the air, he can see bullets flying through the trees. It’s too dangerous for the helicopter to land near the stranded soldiers. So Roy tells the pilot to go lower and he jumps from the hovering helicopter and runs to reach the survivors. The next six hours are an adrenaline filled blur. He gathers the scattered survivors together and gives first aid. He calls in airstrikes to hold back the enemy, all under heavy fire. While leading the soldiers through the battle, roy is shot seven times, stabbed and clubbed in the jaw with the butt of a rifle. When the rescue helicopter finally arrives, he gets all his fellow soldiers safely aboard before allowing them to pull his own horribly wounded body into the chopper. Then he collapses. Back at the base, doctors find Roy unconscious and think he’s dead. So they lay him with the other fallen soldiers.
Roy Benavides: And they were putting us in body bags. And I remember my feet had been lifted and I was in certain for the body bag. And I can hear that zipper coming up and not, Oh my God. No, my eye was shut because I had blood all over my face and my legs. And I couldn’t talk because my jaws were locked and I could hear that zipper coming up, coming up. And one of my buddies was yelling at the doctor, that’s Roy, that’s Roy Benavidez. Doctor said, there’s nothing I can do for him. Now, zipper ‘s just coming up. I was trying and wiggling my own blood and finally that doctor feels my heartbeat. When I felt that hand on my chest, I made the luckiest shot I ever made in my life. I spit in the doctor’s face. So the doctor said, I think he’ll make it.
Charlie Garcia: So miraculously Roy survives, but he’s just clinging onto life. He’s evacuated out of Vietnam and back to the U S where he starts a long, difficult recovery. But he has over 30 serious wounds from the battle, and no one knows whether he’ll make it. The survivors from the battle tell the story of Roy’s actions to higher ups in the army. His bravery warranted the highest award in the military, The Medal of Honor, but there was a problem. The battle took place across the border from Vietnam. At this point, the U S wouldn’t admit to military operations in Cambodia. So the request is quietly buried.
Liz Alarcón: It takes Roy over a year to recover and he stays in the army, but isn’t able to return to active duty again due to his injuries and constant pain. Finally, in 1976, Roy retires from the military and returns to Texas to try and continue living life the best he can. But his family can tell the war has taken a toll on him, replaying the battle in his head over and over causes him to act in strange ways. He flinches when he hears a noise and is constantly peeking through the blinds. Between post-traumatic stress, pain from the injuries, and missing the life he had in the army, Roy finds himself searching for meaning all over again.
Charlie Garcia: But suddenly he finds something to take him on a new mission. He learns about the Medal of Honor recommendation that had been buried years before. So he sets out to claim what he earned. The problem is he can only remember bits and pieces of the battle. And to have any hope of being awarded the medal, there would need to be a full written account with eyewitnesses, but as far as Roy knows, there are no survivors left to tell the story.
Liz Alarcón: Roy didn’t directly acknowledge this himself, but some believed there were political reasons behind him not receiving the medal. He said you were in Cambodia. The army doesn’t want to admit that. They’ll have to acknowledge you were there. They’ll have to acknowledge you were there. Let’s sit with that for a minute. Roy may be talking about a secret mission, this is also symbolic of how invisible we are in the military. Since this country’s founding, Latinos have fought and died in every American war. Education level, language barriers, and a long history of discrimination have kept Latinos from advancement in the military. Today, Latinos are the fastest growing demographic in our armed forces making up about 16% of soldiers on active duty. According to the department of defense, yet we make up only 8% of those who rise to officer ranks. The same year Roy fought his heroic battle, another American soldier fought a remarkably similar one. A white helicopter pilot named James P. Fleming risked his life to save the lives of six stranded Green Berets who had been trapped just over the Cambodian border. What was the difference between him and Roy? Well, Fleming was awarded the Medal of Honor, just two years after the battle. Eight years later, Roy was still fighting to be seen.
Charlie Garcia: So at this point, Roy has hit a dead end with his search, but his luck is about to turn around. Enter Chris and Fred Barbee, a father and son duo who are journalists at the local paper, the El Campo Leader News. The Barbees meet Roy and become obsessed with his story. They want to help him find answers. They write an article about his mission for the medal in their paper. This little story from the local paper gets picked up by an international news outlet and makes it all the way to Australia. It reaches a man named Brian O’Connor, the radio man who’d sent that desperate SOS call in Vietnam.
Liz Alarcón: It turns out Brian was so damaged by the battle that he’d been living as a recluse in Fiji since the war. But even recluses take vacation sometimes. And while traveling in Australia, he runs into the article about Roy in the newspaper can’t believe what he’s reading. The last time he saw Roy was in a body bag. Neither had any idea the other had survived the battle. After reading the long struggle for the Medal of Honor, Brian realizes he’s the only one who can help Roy with his mission. They finally connect over the phone, talking and crying for hours, piecing together the fractured memories from that painful day. After their talk, Brian flies to Washington, DC to submit a 10 page report detailing the six hours from hell the eyewitness account that Roy needed.
Charlie Garcia: 13 years after the battle, on a February 24th, 1981, Roy Benavidez, who once picked cotton and shined shoes, stands in front of president Reagan to be awarded the highest honor in the nation. Reagan turns to the press and says, if the story of his heroism were a movie script, you would not believe it.
Liz Alarcón: That day, Roy became one of only 60 Hispanic soldiers in United States history to earn the Medal of Honor. But even though he was now a national hero, people back home in El Campo felt Roy didn’t deserve the medal. This anti-Latino discrimination that existed during his childhood was still alive and strong. His brother said it best, the town doesn’t like to see Mexicans rise up to their level. Thousands of other Latino soldiers returned from Vietnam to find a country that treated them as outsiders too. They faced institutional racism, abuse by the police, often had difficulty accessing healthcare and veterans services. Even Roy, a Medal of Honor recipient, had to fight to keep his own disability aid. Despite these obstacles, That Mean Mexican still had fighting left in him. He continued to serve by spending the rest of his life visiting schools and mentoring young people. He wanted to make sure other young Latinos didn’t drop out of school like he did.
Roy Benavides: I remember what I was taught in jumped school, our old Master Sergeant would tell me, Benavides, quitters never win and winners never quit. What are you? I’m a winner. Faith, determination, and a positive attitude. A positive attitude will carry you further than ability. You can do it Benavides, you can do it. And I never forgot those three words. Never. My life was spared for a reason, and I hope there’s a good reason.
Liz Alarcón: So, Carlos recently there’s been talk within the military about changing the name of Fort Hood, the military base where both Roy and Vanessa Guillén were stationed to Fort Benevidez.
Carlos De La Cruz: There is an effort to, to, to rename it. And it’s one that every single person, regardless of race, color, creed, gender, everyone can look at and say, that’s, that’s inspiring. That is beyond what any of us would ever dream of doing. And that is totally within the ethos of being a warrior. He just means so much because he did so much in a way that was incredibly selfless, looking out for the fellow brother in need. He comes out victorious because of his humanity. His care for another person is really what makes that story so beautiful.