Faith Got Him Through Vietnam

Henry Roybal was affectionately known to several generations of Challis High School students as “Señor Roybal” during his nearly 25-year career as the district’s Spanish teacher.

As a boy growing up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he always wanted to be a soldier.

“As a child I was overpowered by the story of battle. I played war with my siblings and it was romantic and exciting. I was a kid and always dreamed of being a soldier …”

He understands why war attracts young men and women and has a message for them: Be careful what you ask for.

Roybal’s attitude changed when he was engaged in his first big battle of the Vietnam War, known by the soldiers who fought it as “The Battle of Happy Valley” and to Roybal as “My Little Normandy.”

It was Dec. 18, 1965. Even before reaching Landing Zone Tango, Roybal could see the tracer rounds coming toward his Huey. Jumping out of the helicopter into a jungle clearing, mortar shells were exploding and bullets flying. He could hear and feel bullets whizzing by and see them hitting the ground and water as he and the soldiers in his platoon ran against the grain of fire toward huts in a village.

He didn’t feel like a hero. He was trying to remember his training, listen to his sergeant and simply survive.

“This was real and surreal and scary,” he said.

Roybal vividly remembers the loud sound bullets made when they hit their targets.

“You have to be on the receiving end to know what that sound is like. A bullet going through flesh and bone has a ‘popping’ sound to it. Our rifle platoon charged in a line formation toward the huts and the trees. I could hear popping sounds all along my line. I could hear grazing and whizzing bullets and see them hitting the ground and rice paddy water.”

Roybal said he was next to platoon Sgt. Martin when the man was struck in the chest by a bullet. Martin, a tall, graying veteran of World War II and Korea, was probably in his 40s or 50s, Roybal said. “Sarge” survived his sucking chest wound and earned his third purple heart.

“I ran and was overcome with exhaustion. I was carrying a lot of stuff on me,”, Roybal said. Besides his M16 rifle, Roybal toted a three-day supply of ammo, gear, a couple of grenades, C rations and a couple of canteens of water. As the platoon’s radio telephone operator, Roybal also packed a heavy radio and extra batteries.

“All those months of carrying that doggone thing gave me backaches for the rest of my life,” he said in an interview last week.

Landing Zone Tango was hot. Roybal and his platoon were huddled behind a rice paddy berm that sat higher than surrounding ones. He could see wounded soldiers being evacuated. He saw a helicopter go down. A second wave of choppers dropped a heavy weapons platoon behind Roybal’s. He saw a copilot get hit and slump forward. Wounded soldiers were being rushed toward landing zones for evacuation.

“We were pinned down,” waiting for the order to attack. Just before Charlie company got the order to advance on the village, Roybal’s buddy, Pfc. Corbin, felt a tug on his left shoulder. A .30-caliber round, mostly spent, hit Corbin’s web gear and bounced off. The private staggered back but managed to catch the bullet in his hand. “Look!” He shouted. “A silver bullet just hit my shoulder!”

As Charlie company advanced, two soldiers running for cover got hit simultaneously. Pvt. Duncan’s trigger finger was shot off and other bullets hit the M-79 grenade rounds he was carrying, igniting the powder but not the explosives. Shrapnel hit Sgt. Speakman in the arm, but they both got to cover.

There were many other soldiers wounded or killed in action that day, but some, like Roybal, got away scot-free or were grazed, but not wounded by, bullets. Lt. Vavareck survived a shot through his helmet that spun it around 360 degrees before it landed in his hand. Another hit and spun Specialist Burlew’s helmet as he was loading Pfc. Swanson onto a helicopter. Several more bullets hit Swanson in the back, killing him before he could be evacuated.

“We won, but at a really high price,” Roybal said.

Roybal and his company spent a cold, rainy night in Happy Valley.

“That night was the most horrible night of my life. It was raining like crazy. Guys were whimpering in the cold.” Roybal and his fellow soldiers had ponchos, but they didn’t keep the men dry in the jungle. They didn’t have sleeping bags. After that night, the sun came out. The enemy had retreated. Charlie company was shipped out to yet another engagement via helicopter.

Another night, Roybal was about 30 feet from where Pfcs. Donnelly and Elmore were dug in, firing mortar rounds. A round blew up in their tube, splitting it and throwing shrapnel everywhere. Some punched through Henry’s poncho but missed his body.

“We heard Donnelly yelling, dying. He tried to get up. He had no legs.” Elmore, only 17, never knew what hit him.

Sometimes it was friendly fire, fragging, exploding howitzer or mortar barrels or suicide that killed Americans fighting in Vietnam.

During a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., Roybal found the names of Gary L. Elmore and Wilbur W. Ivanov, two friends who are among the 58,209 Americans killed or missing in the war. He made a paper rubbing of their engraved names.

“I have tried many times to understand why God allows some to live and some to die,” Roybal wrote about his war experience years later. “Some people call this fate. Others call this luck.”

Roybal believes his mother’s prayers got him safely through his harrowing yearlong tour in Vietnam. On all the missions and engagements Roybal fought, “none of those bullets flying past my head had my name on it. If a bullet or an action doesn’t have your name on it, God still wants you around. That was a very important part of my survival. There are no atheists in foxholes.”

Roybal doesn’t know how many enemy soldiers he killed during his tour in Vietnam and doesn’t want to know. Many times, he couldn’t see the enemy as he and his comrades shot from Charlie company’s perimeter into dense jungle foliage. They would have random “firing minutes,” lighting up the sky at night as they fired rifles, mortars and grenades into the jungle to repel possible attacks when they couldn’t see the Vietcong or North Vietnamese Army soldiers or determine where enemy fire was coming from.

Roybal and his unit, the Jumping Mustangs, took a slow boat over to Vietnam, climbing down the sides of the U.S. Geiger on big rope nets into landing craft in full combat gear. They hit a “happy” beach where an Army band played music while double-rotor Chinook helicopters took them to their base camp in the jungle.

When he got back to the U.S. a year later, this time on a 16-hour military flight, he hit the tarmac at Travis Air Force Base near Oakland, California, wearing combat boots, a short-sleeved khaki uniform and carrying his moldy duffel bag. They walked past a gauntlet of shouting protestors waving signs saying, “Baby Killers Go Back!” and “We don’t want you here!”

“That was the homecoming I got,” he said. Roybal took a bus from San Francisco home to Santa Fe because he wanted to see some of the country he’d fought for along the way.

Many Vietnam veterans have dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder. Roybal was no exception. He suffered what he calls a nervous breakdown soon after he got back to the U.S. and was admitted to a psychiatric ward for a time. He had survivor’s guilt.

“It was like I was wishing I was one of the KIAs (killed in action).”

Always one for a challenge, always out front pushing his limits, Roybal volunteered before the Vietnam War started for America, years before the draft was imposed in 1969. He sought out the toughest duty he could find, training with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division as a paratrooper. Small but fast, he didn’t weigh much, and his instructors wondered whether he was heavy enough to fully deploy his parachute. Roybal was trained in artillery and first saw action in the Dominican Republic during the spring and summer of 1965.

At Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in August 1965, Roybal volunteered for duty in Vietnam with the Jumping Mustangs of the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division. They were the first soldiers to use helicopters extensively in all aspects of war.

The soldiers of the Jumping Mustangs of the 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry, Charlie Company, were the first to combine airmobile helicopter transportation, air assault and paratroopers into one military unit. Air assault is where soldiers rappel out of hovering helicopters, as Forest Service helitack crews do to fight forest fires today.

“This was a brand-new concept in modern warfare,” Roybal said. “The use of choppers, hundreds of them, was awe inspiring. I still remember the sound of thundering rotor blades by the hundreds leaving or landing at an LZ.”

The sound of any helicopter brings back vivid memories. It can be a Forest Service helitack ship or an air ambulance helicopter flying to rush someone to a hospital.

“This memory both haunts me and excites me,” Roybal said. “It is imprinted in my mind forever.”

The movie “We Were Soldiers,” based on the book “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young” by Lt. Gen. Hal Moore and reporter Joseph L. Galloway about the Battle of la Drang on Nov. 15, 1965, probably comes closest to conveying what Roybal and his fellow Jumping Mustangs experienced.

They were one of the most decorated units in the Vietnam War. Among his many honors, he received the Air Medal “for meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight.”

Although he never saw action after his Vietnam tour, Henry served 22 years in the Army National Guard, most of those in Idaho. He volunteered to go to Iraq with the Idaho National Guard, but because he would have turned 60 during his deployment, he had to stay home. He sought an exemption to the age limit, noting that he’d kept himself in good shape with tough physical training, including biathlon competition on the Idaho National Guard team. He learned to cross-country ski when he was 40 and consistently scored a perfect 300 on the guard’s physical fitness test.

Now in his 70s, Roybal still trains and competes in skiing and road- and mountain-biking. He’s scheduled to represent Idaho bicycling in the National Senior Games in Albuquerque, New Mexico, next summer. For that, he’ll have to miss the River of No Return Endurance Runs, where he has won his age class each of the four years he’s competed.

Henry and wife Patti are retired empty-nesters in Challis. They often take road trips to visit their four children and eight grandchildren.

Roybal’s faith, devotion to country and wartime and other service shaped his life. During one of his careers, he was a minister to a Hispanic congregation.

“We pursue happiness while we are on this earth,” he said. “It is a desire that our founding fathers had for all future generations. But it has to be bought with a price. The precious blood of countless soldiers who have sacrificed their lives to that end speaks for itself. There is no greater love on Earth when a man or woman lays down his or her life for their friends. And by the same token, God laid down his life for our sakes. And in that … there is no price tag. It is a free gift of redemption and forgiveness, which we should emulate wholeheartedly …”

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