From his yearlong tour in Vietnam, Killeen resident Guadalupe Lopez can recall one happy memory.
It was New Year’s Eve 1970, and U.S. soldiers were celebrating at the base camp near where Lopez was stationed.
“Right about midnight they start firing flares and you could see the flares coming out from all the locations where the soldiers were,” he said of that night, more than 45 years ago.
“Boy, you know, right there it reminds you of when you were back in the States. That was about the only time that I felt good.”
For Lopez, the days in the jungle nation were long.
“I was in war. For me, war was war, 24 hours a day,” he said.
Much of his time with the 2nd Battalion, 4th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division, was spent in the field, manning the tactical operations center, sometimes even through the night.
“I had to do day-by-day operations there. I had to know what was going on. There were times I didn’t sleep because we had contacts (with the enemy),” he said.
Lopez earned a Bronze Star for his actions on Nov. 20, 1969, while on a patrol with his unit. His helicopter was hovering at treetop level when it came under heavy enemy fire. Lopez exposed himself and returned fire as the helicopter made a full rotation.
“We were very lucky that we left in one piece,” he said.
For years after his return from Vietnam, Lopez said he’d wake up crying, screaming, remembering the scenes of war, the friends he lost.
That price, he said, is just part of the job as a soldier.
“I think it was worth it. We were trained. Just like a doctor is trained to operate, we were trained to go to war,” he said.
After 24 years of military service, Lopez retired as a sergeant major in 1980, followed by a two-decade-long second career as a contracted project manager for the MOS Program at Central Texas College.
Though he left the Army, Lopez remains close to the career he loved through involvement in local veterans programs and organizations, including his current role as finance officer at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9192 in Killeen.
“For us, being a retiree, we feel that we’re soldiers for life,” he said. “We retired, yeah, but we hung up only the suit. We’re still connected.”