Vietnam vet joins ‘today’s war’•This story contained incorrect information. Read a correction here.
ASMAR, Afghanistan — No mess hall, showers or two-week leave. No mail, cellphones or Internet. No drinking tea with villagers. No helping them start businesses.
Much more than 39 years separates the experience of a U.S. soldier in Cambodia in 1973 and in Afghanistan in 2012. Staff Sgt. Larry Marquez has lived the difference. He was there then; he’s here now.
“The biggest change is, the guys in Vietnam, Cambodia — they were drafted. They were doing a job because they had to,” said Marquez, 55, of El Paso, Texas, an Army reservist with Company D, 425th Civil Affairs Battalion.
“The guys in Afghanistan, they want to be doing this. You can see that in their attitude.”
Marquez belonged to the minority of soldiers who signed up for the Vietnam War, enlisting at 17 with his parents’ consent.
The teenage artilleryman reported to duty in Cambodia as U.S. forces began staggering toward the exits of the longest conflict in American history prior to the war in Afghanistan.
Despite the privation that U.S. soldiers face here, for Marquez, even the most primitive outpost feels like Versailles compared to the jungle encampments of Southeast Asia. He and his fellow soldiers subsisted solely on C rations and bathed with water scooped from rivers and puddles. Air conditioning? Find some shade. Heat? Build a fire.
His unit was so deep in the bush during its yearlong, no-leave deployment that the men went without the simple comfort of what is now quaintly called snail mail.
“Email, Facebook, Skype — we didn’t have any of that stuff,” he said. “Back then, we told stories to each other to pass the time. All you had were the guys around you.”
Trading in the good life
I met Marquez at Combat Outpost Monti, a small base in Kunar province and the seventh in eastern Afghanistan where he has been stationed since deploying in July. His return to the dirt required persistence and a little serendipity.
He left the reserves in 1987 during a period of relative idleness for the U.S. military. When the Persian Gulf War began three years later, he tried to rejoin, only to see his request sucked into a bureaucratic black hole.
Finally, in 2007, following a chance meeting at a friend’s party with a reserves recruiter who offered to help him, Marquez was again in uniform.
By then, he had lost his chance to serve in Iraq with the 425th. Four years later, after taking part in peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Russia, he headed back to a combat zone, this time as a graybeard instead of a fresh-faced teen.
“If I go out with these young guys on a patrol, they’re always asking if I need water, if I’m getting tired,” said Marquez, who apart from a tweaked hamstring has held up against the physical rigors of deployment. “They’re always watching out for the old man.”
He and his wife, Marcia, live in Carlsbad, Calif., with the youngest two of his seven children. Their home stands less than a mile from the Pacific Ocean. His civilian job as a nuclear specialist pays “extremely, extremely well.”
In other words, he traded the good life for bullets and mortars and IEDs. I asked the obvious question: What the hell was he thinking?
“I wanted to be part of today’s war,” he said. “I felt like I had something I needed to finish.”
‘Their very good friend’
In Cambodia, as an infantryman, Marquez sought to destroy. In Afghanistan, as a civil affairs specialist, he attempts to build.
He has traversed Kunar and neighboring Nangarhar province to hand out “micro-grants” of up to $5,000 to help entrepreneurs launch or expand small businesses.
Among other ventures, he has provided funding for a taxi service, bicycle repair shop and computer classes.
Along the way, he has drank a billion cups of tea with villagers looking to win him over.
“Once they find out who I am and what I can give them,” he said with a smile, “I become their very good friend.”
Vietnam slowly stabilized in the decades after the war there ended in 1975. Marquez, while unsure of Afghanistan’s long-term prospects, predicts that violence, and perhaps civil war, awaits when U.S. forces withdraw in 2014.
“As soon as we leave, it’s going to go back to the way it was,” he said. “I just don’t think the problems will be solved.”
The question of this country’s fate aside, the difference between the two wars that Marquez appreciates above all others is the reception given to returning troops in America.
“Nobody gave a crap about the soldier in the ’70s,” he said. “Today, you walk into a Jack in the Box and someone sees your uniform and buys you dinner. These young guys deserve that kind of respect.”
Spoken like a man as wise as his years.