by Meghann Garcia, managing editor
Carlos Tovar was listening to a friend plan a trip to Hawaii to see his pregnant wife when the world blew up.
Or at least that is how it seemed. Fifty-two years ago, Tovar and his fellow soldiers of the 17th Calvary of the 173rd Airborne Division fell victim to a road mine in Vietnam.
“My squad was wiped out,” Tovar said last Tuesday, the anniversary of the event. “Five or six didn’t make it back that day.”
Tovar was nearly on that list. Shrapnel was embedded in the left ventricle of his heart, left leg, neck and shoulder.
“I was thrown in [with the deceased] and a priest was giving everyone last rites, but he said ‘This man is still alive.’”
The day of the attack, Tovar and his comrades were assigned to clear the road for incoming armor. On the route, they saw two Vietnamese soldiers running, so the lieutenant sent Tovar’s group ahead.
“We came up to a creek, but the bridge was blown out,” Tovar said. “We called back and said we couldn’t go further.”
The men sat down. As a plane flew overhead, Tovar looked up. He was due for a rest-and-relaxation excursion, but his friend and fellow infantryman, Freddie Glover, was expecting a baby. Tovar granted his pass to Glover so he could see his wife.
“He always protected my back, so I traded my leave to him,” Tovar said.
“I’ll be on that plane tomorrow,” Tovar recalls Glover saying as they sat down for a cigarette.
“He asked for a light. I got up and walked toward him,” Tovar continued. “And that’s when everything just blew up. The world went up in smoke.”
Tovar remembers a loud boom and trying to crawl to safety.
Glover was killed.
“I didn’t find out until I was in the hospital,” Tovar said. “I never heard what happened with his wife. She was expecting, at the time.”
Tovar was taken to Japan, and then Denver, Colorado, for open heart surgery. The day marked his last in combat for the U.S. Army.
He received a Purple Heart for his injuries. Among other honors, he was also awarded the Army Commendation Medal with valor for an incident that took place July 3, 1966, in which Tovar jumped on a Viet Cong armed with a grenade.
Under heavy fire, Tovar and his platoon had orders to clear an area 17 miles south of Xuan Loc in order to bring in a long-range reconnaissance platoon. His team captured a Viet Cong.
“I jumped on top of him and got the rifle,” Tovar said. “He had a grenade in his hand, but he hadn’t pulled the pin on it. We were lucky. If he had pulled the pin…”
That was not the end of Tovar’s heroism. “Private First Class Tovar, then acting as a point man, volunteered to check two tunnel systems that were found in the area,” reads a letter signed by assistant adjutant general Charles F. Smith, who announced the commendation.
That summer, Tovar was closing out just over a year of military service. He was drafted weeks after graduating from Sabinal High School.
Born in Glendale, Arizona, Tovar moved to Sabinal at age 6 to live with his uncle, after the death of his mother.
“Everyone knew me as Torres, not Tovar, until I was drafted,” he said.
In Sabinal, he played basketball, but not football because the sport interfered with the harvesting of milo and oats. Tovar helped his uncle on the ranches on which he worked to support his family.
Tovar and his classmates were aware there was a war going on, but he says he did not think about it too much.
“We didn’t think we would be involved in it, being in high school,” he said. “We thought it would be over by then. As soon as we got out of graduation, it wasn’t even six weeks before they called us in.
“Congratulations, greetings,” he said with a wry laugh, recalling the experience of responding to the draft notice. “The United States wants you. We didn’t even take clothes with us. We thought we would be going back home, but they sent us to Louisiana.”
Despite being unexpected, Tovar said training experiences in Louisiana and Alabama were fun.
“We had a lot of fun going to airborne groups, riding in parachutes, jumping out of a perfectly good airplane,” he said. “It was a lot of fun”
The first days of training required a lot of exercise, but it offered lessons in shooting and maneuvers. The food was good, too, Tovar said.
Then came groundwork in Vietnam.
“I wanted to be a point man,” Tovar said. “I wanted to be in the front, not in the back. You don’t volunteer to be point man, but I didn’t mind it. You have to do it.”
What he did not like was guard duty.
“The worst is when you’re out there and you have to do guard duty at night,” he said. “That’s kind of weary. Everyone’s asleep and you’re there making sure no one comes in to bother us.”
In the field, everyone had to keep eyes and ears open to be prepared for attacks. Entertainment was non-existent until they returned home, to the Bien Hoa Air Base.
There, they could play pool and other games, drink light beer – “It didn’t have much alcohol, it wasn’t expensive,” Tovar says – and relax in a safe zone.
“We usually had pretty good hot meals at home base,” he said. In the field, where they would go for a month, troops took rations.
“Some kind of meat, either ham or beanie weenies, or some different type of meat in a can, then a snack, cigarettes, and some candy bars,” he said. “We used to give that candy to little Vietnamese kids. They would go crazy for them.”
He was nearly discharged from the military as Sergeant E-5, but he was demoted to Corporal E-4 due to an altercation with a member of the Air Force in the late summer of 1967.
Tovar was stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
“The Air Force building was next door,” Tovar said. “The Air Force had a lot more stuff than we did. They had Coke machines. I walked over there to get myself a soda pop.
“Some guy came over and asked, ‘What are you doing in our barracks?’ and I said I was getting myself a drink,” Tovar continued, peppering his comments with laughs. “He kept on, so I threw him out the window, and they reported me.”
Some time after returning to base – with his soda and a bag of peanuts in tow – Tovar was confronted by a superior. Due to his impending discharge, Tovar said he was told to leave base immediately after breakfast each morning, so he spent his days in Nashville, Tennessee.
“There was a lot of stuff going on in Nashville,” he said.
On his last day in the Army, he says he walked out the gate and, with a destination of Texas on his mind, hopped a Greyhound bus.
Here, he found his high school sweetheart, Florinda Ramirez, and asked if she wanted to get married.
“She said, ‘Well, yes, I’ve been waiting for you.’”
They wed on Christmas Eve in 1967. After 50 years of marriage, Florinda and Carlos have three daughters, seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
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