EDINBURG — When Celerino “Cele” Castillo III was deployed to Vietnam as a scout in 1971 he never expected to return.
“When I got to Nam, I volunteered for everything. I was in the infantry, I had my own unit, my own squad. They hated me, because I was always volunteering my squad to do search and destroy missions and so forth,” he told a room full of listeners at UTRGV FESTIBA’s Vietnam Veteran panel Thursday.
Castillo described life in the Vietnamese jungle as “hard;” the stories he told Thursday make that word seem to benign to describe the war.
“After a firefight, in the bunker, I found my friend with a needle in the arm. He had died,” Castillo said. “That upset me awhile, but I kept saying to myself ‘It is what it is,’” he said. “So what I did was I picked up the rifle, an AK-47, and I shot him in the chest. Why? Because I wanted his family to know that he had died in a blaze of glory and not as a junkie.”
Castillo’s stories were some of many powerful memories shared by a panel of three Valley Vietnam War Veterans at the Festival of International Books and Arts Thursday.
Castillo, along with Alberto “Al” Garcia and Beto Conde discussed the horrors of the war and how they’ve subsequently expressed themselves through books and art about it.
Noreen Rivera, the panel’s moderator, said that Mexican-American veterans’ contribution to the war has often been ignored in subsequent films and books.
“Films like ‘Deer Hunter,’ ‘Platoon’ and the ever popular ‘Forest Gump’ did perpetuate a national memory that renders Mexican-American soldiers and veterans in Vietnam as non-existent,” she said. “In the literary world, white American authors like Tim O’Brien, Ron Kovic, Philip Caputo, with their skill in haunting prose and poetry nevertheless reinforce the dominant narrative white male experience in Vietnam over that of men of color.”
Al Garcia, one of the speakers who served as a combat journalist in the war, described an autobiography he wrote that describes his experience in the war. Garcia said even though he and his fellow panelists survived the war, they were forever changed by it.
“You’re still a casualty, and I think the three of us here are examples of it. We deal with it in different ways: I write, Beto writes and he (Cele) paints, and that’s our therapy because we all have those nightmares of what we saw,” he said.
Garcia said he thinks the opportunity to share those works is important because of the lessons they can impart.
“Events like this give me an opportunity to explain to them that war is not good; it’s a bad experience, because it stays with you, as Cele says, it stays with you forever, regardless of whether you walked away with or without any injuries,” he said. “People are just fascinated with war, and it’s not a fascination to many of us, especially those who have lived through them. It’s an experience that you don’t really want to wish on anyone, and yet people just hunger for something to do with it.”
Alan Scott, a veteran who sat in the audience Thursday, said he attended the panel because of his own memories of service.
“That’s why I’m interested in coming to things like this. So many of my friends were in the service, I know some of the names that are on the wall in Washington D.C. at the memorial,” he said. “People need to understand.”