Vietnam Veteran Angel Rosario outside his home in Hebron. | Shelley Jones~for Sun-Times Media
This year marks the 50th anniversary of our country’s entry into the Vietnam War. More than 3 million men and women served and more than 58,000 didn’t return home. While there was fighting half a world away, the events there also brought a transition in American culture. The Post-Tribune will profile a Vietnam War veteran every Monday. If you know someone who served who might like to be profiled, please email Joe Puchek at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Updated: August 15, 2014 6:03AM
HEBRON — War is by definition deadly. The atmosphere under which it is waged can be, too. At least that’s how it seemed for Hebron Marine Corps veteran Angel Rosario when he served in Vietnam from November 1970 to June 1971.
Already a prime target as a fuel radio operator, the South Side of Chicago native took a temporary assignment with Grunt Company of Headquarters and Supply Company.
“Those are the guys slogging it out with the enemy,” he said. Initially part of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, Rosario was transferred to the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines.
“Even though they tell you to never volunteer in the military, I did,” Rosario said. “There was a lot of drug use. I just thought it would be safer in the jungle than in the rear. I saw so much drug use I was really surprised. The heroin there was very, very strong, almost pure.”
He had started this approach of not leaving things to chance, steering his own war experience as much as possible, when he enlisted at age 19.
“I was No. 39 in the draft and I knew I wasn’t going to college,” he said. As one of seven children, his parents couldn’t afford to send him. Friends in all branches of the military told him to enlist because those drafted weren’t treated well.
“I had a good lesson taught to me in Vietnam,” Rosario said of a mission early in his tour in which he held his radio handset in one hand and his service weapon in the other. “It was a good lesson taught in a bad way. I learned what it means to do your job.
“This sergeant walks up to me and says, ‘What’s that?’ He points to my 45,” Rosario said. “ ‘That’s my piece,’ I responded to the officer. ‘That’s your job,’ the sergeant said, pointing to the phone. ‘You do your job and we’ll take care of you’ and he leans in and says, ‘And if you don’t do your job we’ll take care of you.’ I never took out my gun again.”
By his tour’s end, shortened from 13 to seven months because President Nixon began pulling troops out of Vietnam, Rosario had earned the Navy Achievement Medal and the rank of sergeant.
Rosario says he was fortunate not only to get to travel back to the United States by ship, allowing for some time to decompress, but to have started what he was told was the largest bar brawl Hong Kong had ever seen before shipping out.
“It was beautiful,” Rosario said. “It was so beautiful to be in a fight where you didn’t have to kill nobody. I was just laughing and fighting.
“I knew enough about fights to get in and get out,” he said of the fight that flared up after a verbal tiff with an Australian. He and a buddy were standing on the curb looking innocent when the police finally streamed in. “That was therapeutic.”
What has proven to be less so are Vietnam veteran discussion groups. He started attending them after the death of his mother. Before she died she asked him to tell her about Vietnam because it was the one part of his life she knew nothing about.
“I hemmed and hawed about it and then two months later she died and I felt terrible,” Rosario said. “So I decided, ‘I’m going to start talking about it.’ I was going to all these meetings and it was making me worse.”
His wife of 33 years, Sherri, with whom he has two children, Adam, 32, and Alissa, 28, was the one who noticed it wasn’t helping.
“Nobody would stay on the topic,” she said of her husband’s frustration with this approach to managing post-traumatic stress disorder. “They would arrive with something they wanted to talk about, which may have helped them,” but didn’t allow for the original topic to be explored, she said.
What does seem to work for Rosario is giving of his time to Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 802 in Hammond. Since retiring from his career as an accountant he’s there about three days a week. He also earned a degree in criminal justice in 2007, planning to launch a second career, but had to give that up when health issues blamed on Agent Orange exposure intensified.