The following is the fifth in a series of weekly feature stories on West Side residents who served in the armed forces. Rural Newman resident Don Matoza, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, is featured. The series will continue through Veterans Day.
NEWMAN - Life took rural Newman resident Don Matoza into the military and to Vietnam in his early 20s, just as the war was escalating.
Matoza, a 1960 Gustine High graduate, served in the Army from 1964-66.
Matoza completed boot camp at Fort Ord, where he was designated to serve as a medic.
Vietnam was a topic of little consideration when he went into the military - a dynamic that rapidly changed as the war broadened.
“Vietnam was hardly talked about, but apparently it was escalating. I wasn’t very political, and I had no clue what was happening,” said Matoza, who was assigned to be a medic.
He shipped out to Vietnam in August 1965, Matoza shared, a month in which U.S. forces increased in number from 40,000 to 100,000.
“They sent us by ship,” he said of his unit. “We left out of the mothball fleet, which hadn’t been used since either the Korean War or World War II.”
Matoza was part of a group of 36 ambulances, each staffed by two soldiers.
Their role was simple, he explained.....taking soldiers off the helicopters which evacuated the wounded from the combat zones (there was really no such thing as a traditional front in Vietnam, Matoza noted) and hustling them into the field hospitals a few yards away from the landing zone.
“You could hold four guys in an ambulance, and they usually had four litter patients on a chopper,” Matoza explained. “Every day, there were more coming in.”
The wounded spent little time in the field hospitals where, Matoza related, skilled doctors worked feverishly to stabilize patients and send them on their way for further treatment.
“The hospitals were like a MASH hospital. There was not a lot of room to keep a lot of guys. Within a day or two (of their arrival) our job was to get them loaded onto C-130s” and transported out,” Matoza explained.
Matoza expressed his high regard for the doctors working in the field.
But the true heroes, he added, were the helicopter crews who went in harm’s way to evacuate the wounded.
Helicopters would come back riddled with bullet holes, Matoza recalled, after pilots landed between U.S. forces and the enemy.
“They took hits all the time. They were the bravest guys I have ever seen,” he expressed.
The ambulance company occasionally was called upon for other duties at times.
Matoza recalls being part of a 100-truck caravan traversing a windy, dirt road over a pass to take aviation fuel and other supplies to other units.
“It was owned by them in the night and us in the day, sometimes,” he said of the pass. With well-armed helicopters flying support “we got over there and back with no incidents,” Matoza added.
Living conditions left much to be desired for soldiers in Vietnam.
His unit was housed in large tents, Matoza said, although in time he and some others foraged supplies to build a house of sorts for themselves.
The water was bad; malaria was a constant concern.
The heat was fierce, and the mosquitoes ferocious.
“If you didn’t cover up with blankets at night the mosquitoes would eat you to pieces. If you covered up, you would sweat to death,” said Matoza.
For all that, he stressed, “I didn’t have it bad, because I wasn’t out there (immediately in the combat zones).”
Matoza returned to the West Side after leaving the military, walking in his home at 3 a.m. to the joy of his parents, who did not know of his impending return.
He was not met with the outward hostility directed at so many others upon their return from Vietnam, Matoza reflected, but neither was he greeted with a homecoming welcome. His dad was proud, he recalled, but few outside of family expressed their appreciation.
Many years passed before Matoza decided to join the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post, and only a few years ago did he receive the medals he earned in Vietnam - with the assistance of local veteran advocate Richard Gaytan.
He is now a member of the local honor guard which provides military honors at the funerals of veterans.
Matoza said receiving his draft notice was not unexpected in the era of selective service registration, and is proud to have answered the call to duty all those years ago.
His family had a long tradition of military service, Matoza noted, and in his view, everybody should serve their country.
His time in the Army, Matoza said, only deepened his sense of patriotic pride.
“I have always been patriotic, but I think it heightens that,” he said of his service.
Matoza is also grateful when the public does show its respect and appreciation.
“I don’t like seeing things where (people) abuse the flag; when people don’t respect the flag,” he stated. “It is neat when people do show respect for the flag and for veterans.”