“In time our battles were forgotten, our sacrifices discounted and both our sanity and our suitability for life in polite progressive American society were publicly questioned. Our young-old faces, chiseled and gaunt from the fever and the heat and the sleepless nights, now stare back at us, lost and damned strangers, frozen in yellowing snapshots packed away in cardboard boxes with our medals and ribbons… As the years passed we searched each other out and found that the half-remembered pride of service was shared by those who had shared everything else with us. With them, and only with them, could we talk about what had really happened over there – what we had seen, what we had done, what we had survived.” – Lt. Gen. (ret) Harold G. Moore, We Were Soldiers Once… and Young
If you have attended a Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program Returning Warrior Workshop (RWW) event, you most likely heard numerous stories from Service members who endured arduous and sometimes dangerous deployments.
RWW’s often serve as one of the only settings where Service members and their loved ones can gather and share their stories of struggle, hardship, loss, and valor, as well as seek resources and support to identify and address the problems they face.
The stories often center on those Service members and their families who have deployed since Sept. 11, 2001, when a series of terrorist attacks set in motion two wars lasting more than a decade of conflict.
But standing in front of a crowd of more than 150 Warriors and their guests at an RWW event in Fort Worth, Tex., Sgt. 1st Class (ret) Sergio Borrero, a Vietnam veteran, finally shared his story; a story that took more than 45 years to tell.
Borrero was born in Puerto Rico, but he moved early in his childhood and spent most of his youth growing up in San Francisco. It was from there that he enlisted in the United States Navy in 1956.
After the end of his first enlistment in 1960, he transferred to the Navy Reserve. But in 1961, just a year after leaving Active Duty, he decided to re-enlist and join the United States Army as an infantryman.
It was early into his career that American troops in the region of Southern Vietnam surged from 2,000 in 1961 to more than 16,000 in 1964. By the time Borrero received his orders on the third day of a mass recall ordered to Fort Bragg shortly before Christmas of 1965, troop levels had skyrocketed to more than 184,000.
He waited with other soldiers during hourly formations as their names were called one by one and were handed their orders to Vietnam.
“They just cleaned house,” said Borrero. “They got just about everyone.”
They were given leave, and a few short weeks later in January of 1966, he was on a plane to Saigon.
When Borerro landed, the orders to the 173rd Airborne Division he had received at Fort Bragg were rescinded, and he was reassigned to A Troop, 1st Battalion, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. From Saigon he immediately flew by helicopter to Camp Radcliff where he saw a plane burning on the side of the runway.
“A C-130 had crashed that morning and almost everyone died, including the crew and everyone on board,” said Borrero. “That was it. That was when everything began.”
He was ushered to supply, signed for a weapon and ammunition, and told to throw his extra gear in a nearby tent. There had been another crash; a helicopter had gone down, there were more casualties, and they were mounting a rescue.
Although he had briefly experienced combat during a short deployment to the Dominican Republic, his first day in Vietnam would prove to be unlike anything he had ever experienced or imagined.
It was also during this deployment that Borrero served in one of the most famous battles of the Vietnam War: the Battle of Ia Drang Valley.
Near the Chu Pong Mountain, a helicopter radioed that they had spotted no less than 30 enemy soldiers carrying weapons.
“When you see a number reported you have to assume there are three times as many,” said Borrero. “That was how we assessed enemy strength then.”
Borrero had been the platoon sergeant when their platoon leader, a young captain who had been with A Troop less than three weeks, received the call and responded they were going in.
“I gathered my platoon of 26 men—that was all we had—and I told them, ‘Look guys, you’re really going to have to take care of each other on this one, because I don’t have a good feeling about this.’”
Borrero and his platoon were dropped into the Ia Drang Valley, and after moving only 25 yards into the brush they found and captured an enemy soldier who had been lying on the ground smoking. The platoon’s interpreter was brought over and quickly interrogated the captured Viet Cong soldier to find out the strength and location of their unit.
“He looked up, and he said we were surrounded by more than 1,000 North Vietnam and Viet Cong soldiers,” said Borrero.
The captain quickly requested the return of the three helicopters, but before they could arrive to evacuate, weapons fire erupted from all sides and the platoon was quickly embroiled in an intense exchange of fire.
Overwhelmed by enemy forces and taking heavy casualties, 16 of the 26 men in the platoon were killed when two of the three helicopters were destroyed on the ground.
During the evacuation two more soldiers from Borrero’s platoon and the co-pilot were killed in the helicopter by enemy fire and the helicopter suffered extreme damage.
“Brace yourselves, we’re going down,” Borrero heard as the pilot of the helicopter found a clearing and conducted an emergency landing.
They called for another helicopter, and soon they were transported to Fire Base X-Ray where they unloaded the dead and the wounded. A short time later SFC Borrero looked up to see the sky was full of helicopters flying into the ambush zone.
“A Troop was totally destroyed,” said Borrero. “The four gunships protecting us were shot down and most of the pilots and the crew were either killed or wounded.”
A Troop’s discovery of the combined North Vietnam and Viet Cong force led to the first large-scale battle of the Vietnam War, in which more than 250 U.S. troops and an estimated 1,000 Vietnamese lost their lives during two days of intense fighting. The battle was made famous by the book We Were Soldiers Once… and Young and the subsequent film adaptation.
“The commander of A Troop could tell I was in bad shape, and toward the end he said, ‘You only have two weeks, so just wait for your orders and do what you can to help out around here,” said Borrero. “And that was the way it went.”
“I played it cool,” he said.
He left from Camp Radcliff after a year-long deployment and spent three days out-processing at Cam Ranh Bay. There they told him that he should forget about everything that happened over there. They told him no one back home would understand.
“I guess it worked, because I kept my mouth shut for 45 years,” said Borrero laughing.
He took a bus to San Francisco after he arrived back in the states and spent the next two weeks with his wife and his two young children. After only a few short weeks, he again boarded a plane and departed for Germany to his next duty assignment.
“It’s sad,” said Borrero. “I was married to a young wife. I married her when she was 18. She thought I had been having fun in Vietnam. She thought the same thing when I returned back from Vietnam after my second tour.”
Borrero and his wife divorced shortly after his return from his second deployment to Vietnam in 1971.
“I told her it was not our fault. The war messed up our marriage, we were very young, and we weren’t ready to be married,” said Borrero. “There were no programs then. There was nothing, except the Chaplain.”
Borrero retired from Service in 1980. Following his time in the Army, Sergio worked as a High School Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps Instructor in the Houston area for more than 20 years, mentoring and training hundreds of young men and women.
It wasn’t until years later that his son-in-law, Capt. Lance Bach, Commander of Navy Region Southeast Reserve Component Command Fort Worth, invited Sergio to speak at an RWW event after learning he had never received any support after returning from his deployments.
“I was expecting something small, but when I saw what was taking place I said, ‘This is incredible,’” said Borrero, who was able to participate in the event as both a presenter and a Warrior. “I unloaded. I was able to get it out. It was way more than I expected.”
“His humility and experience working through an unbelievably difficult combat experience was compelling,” said Bach. “He was candid about his journey and his personal demons, and he was able to share his story for the first time with other warriors. He really provided this next generation of Warriors great perspective and helped us all appreciate what the services do to support their returning Warriors today.”
“These returning Warriors, from all the Services, they need to be remembered,” said Borrero. “That’s all they want. To be remembered.”