Frank Rueda, the quiet hero

By KEVIN PARRISH | The Record, Stockton, Calif. | Published: November 14, 2013

STOCKTON, Calif. — Frank Rueda is the real deal.

He's 78 years old, a bona fide war hero and a proud man reticent to talk about the past. Until you get him started.

Rueda has stayed quiet about what happened to him in Korea and Vietnam, particularly the horrors of Vietnam.

You won't find him hanging out at the VFW, having a beer with old buddies. He didn't wear a hat and stand at attention on Veterans Day. He does not observe Memorial Day.

"I don't dwell on it. There was nothing good, ... a lot of bad parts," Rueda said. "Some guys dwell on this stuff. I should have known when I joined, it wasn't going to be picnic."

Rueda lives today in a modest, comfortable house not far from Victory Park with Lynn, his wife of 45 years.

Rueda came home from two wars with two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, letters of commendation for bravery and a deep respect for those who have served in the U.S. military.

Rueda also has a bad hip - shattered trying to save another soldier's life in Vietnam - and an understanding of how Hollywood has glamorized war. He knows the 2002 Mel Gibson movie "We Were Soldiers" was inaccurate.

Rueda is one of the lucky ones who survived 1965's Battle of Ia Drang, the movie's focal point. It was a tragic engagement that started 48 years ago today.

"It's hard. I never talk about it," Rueda said. "I've tried to clear it out of my mind."

For good reason.

The encounter was the first major battle between U.S. Army regulars and the People's Army of Vietnam. It unfolded in two parts and, in the end, it all but wiped out the 7th Cavalry 2nd Battalion.

The 29-year-old Rueda, "rifle in hand," was assigned to Charlie Company. He was in the middle of the deadliest ambush of the war.

"It was just chaos," he says. "I was part of the lost platoon. Me and a friend, Sgt. Jesse Hernandez, crawled out in a creek bed. Everybody else was blown apart. We were the only two to survive.

"We crawled out, got in touch with Bravo Company, set up a defensive perimeter and kept fighting."

Historians have said the battle convinced Ho Chi Minh, president of North Vietnam, that he could win the war.

Later, Rueda and Hernandez were sent to Saigon to identify the bodies of their fellow soldiers. At least 300 were laid out in a large warehouse.

"They'd been out in the jungle for weeks," Rueda said. "It was not a good sight to see. We ID'd most by their tattoos."

Almost 200 Americans were killed in one 16-hour period of the four-day battle.

Three months later, Rueda, a platoon leader, was back on the front lines and saw action that resulted in the Bronze Star, a medal given for heroism.

He was deployed to Germany for awhile after that but faced another reassignment - the choice of going back home to the United States or a return trip to Vietnam.

"I knew I didn't want to go stateside, the way people were treating us," Rueda said, "calling soldiers 'baby killers' and all. So I went back to Vietnam and ended up with the same damn outfit."

He soon returned to the jungle and almost-daily patrols. "We went out every night," he said. "One time we got into a firefight, and a very young African-American kid jumped up. I grabbed a hold of him and told him to stay put."

In that instant, a bullet shattered Rueda's hip. The veteran of two wars had a second Purple Heart and a ticket home.

Three years in a body cast and a lifetime of surgeries awaited him. Somehow, in the midst of that long rehabilitation, he met and married and had two children. Lynn is his second wife.

Together, they operated Piggyback Trailer Repair Co. in Elk Grove for a few years before Rueda's nagging wartime injuries forced him into disability retirement.

His time in Vietnam was preceded by an equally extraordinary experience in Korea.

In 1952, when Rueda was just 16½ years old and attending the old Stockton High School annex, he convinced his mother to give her written consent that he was 17.

"In my family, it was either work in the fields or go to the Army," he said. "I was hoping to get something out of it. I was hoping to get my education."

By the time he turned 17, Pvt. Frank Rueda was in a heavy mortar outfit on the Korean peninsula. He had taken cover in a bunker one autumn day when it was hit by a shell and collapsed on top of him.

That's how Rueda got his first Purple Heart.

"I was buried alive," he said. "But I had a poncho on, and I had a bit of air inside it. It took them two hours to get me out.

"I wrote my mom after that to get me out of the Army. She said, 'No dice.' She told me I had to live with the consequences of my decision."

One wall of Rueda's midtown home is filled with military memorabilia and a healthy share of medals, but he never goes to reunions and has not joined any veterans' organizations.

"I don't want to remember the things they talk about," he said. "It's how I keep myself sane. Guys who dwell on that stuff are not in good shape."

Rueda, who has positive outlook on life, has found another way to deal with his bad memories, including the loss of a son in January to cancer.

"I believe in God," he said. "I go out in the backyard to talk to him. I'm not really into church, but I figure if I can talk to him in the jungle, I can talk to him in the backyard."


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