Editor’s note: The following is the fourth in a series of weekly feature stories on West Side residents who served in the armed forces. Gustine resident Frank Mendez, a U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War, is featured. The series will continue through Veterans Day.
GUSTINE - Enlisting in the military only seemed natural for Frank Mendez, given a long line of family members who had served.
So, too, did insisting on a tour of duty in Vietnam so he could do his part.
Through the decades that followed his service, Mendez battled emotional scars etched by his experiences in Vietnam and the hostility which greeted returning soldiers.
Services offered through a veterans center in Modesto have recently helped quiet those personal demons, Mendez reflected, helping bring closure to his emotional turmoil.
“They have been a blessing for us. I can’t say enough for them,” Mendez commented.
A calling to serve his country had taken Mendez into the military as a teen.
Mendez, a retired PG&E employee who has lived in Gustine for 40 years, was a senior at Gilroy High when he enlisted on his 18th birthday, and in that summer of 1967 shipped out to report for duty.
“I had the grades and money to go to college, but I didn’t feel it was right to stand on the sidelines,” Mendez reflected. Serving in the military, he noted, was “a family tradition. That was just the way we were raised.”
“He said he had to do it,” said his high school sweetheart and now wife of nearly 50 years Dolores Mendez, “that he had to go help his country out. He volunteered for everything.”
After completing his basic training at Fort Bliss, Texas, and completing training in advanced communications and jump school (his uncle was a paratrooper, and Mendez wanted to follow in his footsteps), he found himself stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Mendez had anticipated being shipped out to Vietnam, but instead saw other units deployed while his remained stateside.
“I was told I could pull my whole three years there (Fort Bragg), but I said that’s not why I enlisted,” said Mendez, who by then had started putting in requests for a transfer to Vietnam.
Eventually he went up the chain of command, first to a general and eventually to his Congressman, and eventually had his request granted.
He married Dolores while home on 30-day leave before reporting in October 1968 to ship out.
Mendez was initially stationed at a battalion headquarters working in communications, but stepped into a far different role after learning that volunteers were needed for a long range reconnaissance patrol.
Mendez stepped forward, and was assigned to a six-man team which inserted into the field via helicopter to monitor enemy activity and troop concentrations.
“We were called the eyes and ears of the commanding general. Our job was to observe enemy movement or concentration or find intelligence on them building up,” Mendez explained. “We would go out for four to six days, where the line companies would stay out in the field for 30-40 days.”
Headquarters, he added, would send in a reactionary force if there was any large concentration of troops.
The patrol would at times engage the enemy, he added.
The enemy was not the only hazard in the field, Mendez said, as on more than one occasion the patrol came under friendly fire.
“Our whole team came back,” he reflected. “Others were not so fortunate.”
The team members, he said, grew close in the field.
“In combat there is a sense of unification. You trust each other and have confidence in each other,” Mendez commented.
He left the military in April 1970 and returned to California only to face hostility.
“I didn’t expect getting into another war at home. I don’t know which one was worse,” Mendez shared.
“When he got back it was heart-breaking the way they treated him,” Dolores Mendez added.
Mendez went about his life, bearing emotional upheaval which led to alcoholism.
“I tried to hide in a bottle, and you can’t do that,” said Mendez, who has been sober for two years.
He credits the veterans center for providing the services and support he needed to face the emotional scars.
“God bless them,” said a grateful Mendez.
His fellow team members are not far from his thoughts. While Mendez was able to reconnect with his team leader and the two stay in touch, they have been unable to reach the other four members of the patrol.
“I think of the guys all the time. I hope they were fortunate (in life) and I wish I could contact them and see how they are doing,” Mendez expressed. “We went through a lot.”
He does not regret his choice to serve.
“I mull that over. If I did have to do it over again, I would despite all the hardship and negativity,” Mendez reflected. “I think our country is worth it, I really do.”