Porterville native and Vietnam Veteran Robert Hernandez Cordova fought his way into the Marine Corps, after questioning why he wasn’t fighting for his county. After losing his father in World War II, Cordova grabbed death by the horns, serving on the front lines in Vietnam. Driven by fear and adrenaline, Cordova fought in many brutal battles including Quan Tri Province, Thon Khetri, Con Thien, and, most memorable to him, the Battle of Khe Sanh.
“I woke up one morning to shave and I looked in the mirror and said why am I here and not fighting for our country?,” said Cordova in an interview with The Recorder. “I had friends and relatives that were drafted, but I could not be drafted because I was the sole surviving son. I lost my dad in World War II. The military can’t draft you if you are the only son to carry on the family name. It was the hardest thing for me to do to sign-up because of my mom, but I needed to do it.
“I went to the recruiter to sign-up and had to sign three waivers just to get into the Marine Corps. To be able to go overseas, I had to sign another waiver, to be sent in to combat, I had to sign another waiver, because I was the sole surviving son. I signed away all my rights and ended up on the front lines in Vietnam. There weren’t really any front lines though, because it was more Guerrilla Warfare.”
Cordova recalled his first time in battle, saying that in that moment he could do nothing but tremble in fear.
“Your first time in battle, fear grabs you and strangles you by the neck,” said Cordova. “Your body goes into shock and you freeze. Your body goes into full trembling on your first battle. Your body just freezes. The men around you protect you, and know what you're experiencing because they’ve been through the same thing. It’s a natural reaction. Not everybody experiences it the same way. I happened to be with a buddy of mine and we were both new and experiencing the same things at the same time during our first battle.
“The fear never leaves. You learn to live with the fear until you become numb. You just shut down to emotions at war. If you don’t, you won’t survive.”
Not only was he living in a constant state of fear, Cordova also endured some of the worst pain of his life.
“Pain was second to fear, something you felt every day,” said Cordova. “When you’ve got to go up and down these hills covered in Elephant Grass and it cuts you, or when you can’t get dry because of the high humidity and all of the bacteria that comes with that, or all of the walking, walking, walking. You’re so exhausted. You're walking through areas with lots of mud and leeches. You don’t see that in movies. People don’t realize all of the things that are around us. There are all of these things, besides the enemy trying to kill you, that people are not aware of.”
While Cordova is proud to have served his country, he says that it was hard because the Vietnam War was not popular amongst civilians in the states. He explained why it was difficult to fight in Vietnam, especially because the VietCong used Guerrilla Warfare.
“They would do attacks on our troops at any time, anywhere, any place,” said Cordova. “They would hit and run and hide. Guerrilla Warfare is that way, they hit and run, but they don’t have a military uniform. The unfortunate thing is that a lot of civilians get hurt that way. The Guerrilla’s fight behind the women and children, and a lot of people get hurt that way. That made the war even more unpopular here in the United States. They called the soldiers baby killers, and all kinds of stuff, and that made it even worse. It was already unpopular to begin with.”
Cordova enlisted into the Marine Corps at 21 years old, just days before his 22nd birthday, and served from October 3, 1966 to October 2, 1968. While fighting in the Battle of Khe Sanh, Cordova was wounded and became the recipient of a Purple Heart.
“I got wounded in Khe Sanh, so I have a Purple Heart and I’m a member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, which is an organization for Purple Heart recipients,” said Cordova.
Cordova served with the 1/9 Unit, also known as “The Walking Dead”, during his time in the military.
“They called us The Walking Dead,” said Cordova. “1/9 had the most casualties of all the troops.”
Cordova faced death on a daily basis for 13 months in Vietnam, but he shared a few memories that still put a smile on his face.
“We were in between battles and were out in the jungle,” said Cordova. “When you're in the jungles fighting, you don’t have the luxury of taking nice, hot showers. You’re out in the middle of nowhere. If we were fortunate, we would be sent back to base once every three weeks or so. When we’d go back to the base camp, we’d take showers with sun water. One time, we were in the jungle and hadn’t bathed for a long time, we were filthy. In Vietnam, when it rains, it pours hard. They call them Monsoon rains. This Monsoon rain came and I just took off all my clothes and just went right into the rain and started washing myself down. The rest of the platoon saw me and started doing the same thing. It was funny. We were out there completely nude, just bathing in the heavy rain.”
During his time in Vietnam, Cordova made a connection with a young Vietnamese girl, who would bring him bananas in trade for the sweets from his rations.
“We were in a small village and the people living in the village were living in grass shacks on top of bamboo poles to keep their houses from washing away in the rains,” said Cordova. “That’s how they lived. They didn't have water or electricity or anything like that, but they lived near a river. They had buckets and the kids would bring water from the river up to the house. We had sent up our perimeter in the middle of the village with a fence and barbed wire for safety. When school was over, the kids would walk by our fence, and there was this young girl about 11 years old. She knew just a little bit of english, and I would talk to her. We became really good friends, and she taught me some Vietnamese, and I was teaching her more english. I would get my C-rations, and they would give you a desert can. She loved sweets, and I really liked bananas. She would bring me bananas and I would give her my sweets. She just loved it. Her name was Phom.”
When offered rest and relaxation during his service, Cordova chose to go to Japan to help his friend get a letter and photograph to his long distance girlfriend. While in Japan, Cordova says he had the best meal of his life,
“They gave you what’s called R&R, rest and relaxation,” said Cordova. “They gave you choices of where you wanted to go, and I chose Japan because a friend of mine had a girlfriend living there he’d been writing to since high school. He’d never met her, but he asked if I’d go and take his picture to her. I said I would, so I went to Japan.
“When I got there, it was 30 degrees and snowing. I went to the girls house, and she wasn’t there, but her mother was. She didn’t know english and I didn’t know any Japanese, so I showed her the picture and the letter and then she understood. She invited me in, and eventually the young girl came home. She knew some english so she started translating between me and her mom. She was excited and she showed me around Tokyo. That was a good experience. I had the most expensive meal at the most expensive restaurant there. I ate shark fin. It was the best meal I’ve had in my whole life.”
When asked how he felt when he returned home, Cordova initially stated that he wanted his life to end, but had never thought of suicide. He instead coped by taking up skydiving.
“I’ve never had a suicide frame of mind,” said Cordova. “I’ve always believed in God, our souls belong to Him, but it’s hard for people to understand that when you come back from war, your adrenaline has been going for months. I spent 13 months in Vietnam. Something I always wanted to do was skydive, so that’s one of the first things I did when I got home. I did skydiving for about two years. Because you’re living on the edge when you're at war, there’s the constant adrenaline rush, so when you get home you want to feel that rush.”
But his time at war had a huge effect on Cordova’s mind and way of life. After returning from serving in Vietnam, Cordova said that his values had changed, and that he was a changed man all together.
“It affected my everyday life tremendously,” said Cordova. “I was having a lot of nightmares, and I had a lot of anger built up. I was losing sleep and had anxiety in crowds. I was having dreams of running out of ammunition and all kinds of stuff like that. I was having flashbacks when I was awake. Even now, my stomach is trembling.
“Before I went to Vietnam, I was playing the saxophone and singing in a Rock n’ Roll band. We were finishing up our fourth year when I enlisted in the Marine Corps. When I got back from Vietnam, I had no interest in playing music. It changed me because I didn't have the same values when I got back. Music didn’t have any value to me anymore, because what I experienced in Vietnam changed me. I just can’t pick it up, but I still have my saxophone. I can’t sell it.
“I still had the fear and aftershock. I was in the restroom and a tree branch scraped the window. It sounded just like an incoming round. When I heard the branch, I was on the floor in an instant. It’s not to that extent today, but when I go to restaurants I still have to sit with my back to the wall. I can’t sit in the open. If I can’t see behind me, I’m not comfortable. I don’t think I’m back to complete normal to this day, but receiving Christ has allowed me to do a lot of forgiveness.”
While he believed in God his whole life, at the age of 38, Cordova strengthened his faith, which has helped him transform his mind and outlook on life. With the support from a group called Point Man Ministries, Cordova found that he was able to release a lot of anger through forgiveness and scripture.
“I received Christ and changed my whole life,” said Cordova. “Before I received Christ, I would not cry. I was like a stone, and I felt like I was still half-dead, numb, from the war. I never left Vietnam, I’ve never left the war, and the war has never left me. But with Christ, I can deal with it. You never leave the war zone. You can’t just erase it, but I think in a way it makes you stronger, especially in faith.
“I went to this group called Point Man Ministries twice a week in the evening. On Tuesdays, we’d get together as a group of Vietnam Veterans and talk about our experiences. On Thursdays, the leader of the group would read scriptures out of the Bible about forgiveness for ourselves. That really helped, being in Point Man Ministries.”
While he survived his time at war in Vietnam, Cordova said he would have never made it out if it weren't for his Brothers in Arms.
“The comradery was so important,” said Cordova. “We were there for each other. You get really close. You do what you can for each other, and you also stand up for what the Marines stand for.”