The medals speak for the themselves.
Two Silver Stars.
Two Bronze Stars, both with V device for valor.
One Legion of Merit.
One Army Commendation Medal, with V device.
All were awarded for actions by one man in the span of 12 months.
The place: Vietnam.
The man: Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Homer Garza.
‘I already have one’
One of the most decorated veterans in Central Texas, Garza’s yearlong tour in Vietnam was filled with close calls, constant attacks from the enemy and slow, hot journeys down Vietnam’s jungle-shrouded, deadly rivers.
On one occasion, Garza, now 82 and living in Harker Heights, was hit in the back by shrapnel from an enemy artillery round. The piece of metal caused a gash in Garza’s back that a doctor was able to sew up with six stitches. As Garza was returning to duty, the doctor asked Garza if he wanted him to put in the paperwork for a Purple Heart.
Garza’s reply: “No, I already have one,”
His refusal of a Purple Heart is one of many Vietnam and Army experiences Garza had in his 25-year career in the military. Today, the native of Robstown in South Texas is a grandfather and great-grandfather and a retired real-estate construction inspector. He’s quick to smile and is active in the community, especially with the local chapter of the Korean War Veterans Association.
Path to Vietnam
Already a seasoned combat vet from fighting with the 1st Cavalry Division in the Korean War, Garza attended the Army’s Jungle School in Panama in 1963. Years later, he attended the Army’s Vietnamese Language School at Fort Bliss, and in January 1968, he arrived in Vietnam at the rank of first sergeant.
Garza’s bravery, easy-going manner and previous combat experience made him beloved by the men of Charlie Battery, 3rd Battalion, 34th Artillery, 9th Infantry Division. The battery’s mission was to provide artillery support for the division’s infantry soldiers operating in the area.
Garza’s unit supported various infantry operations, and for much of the time, his artillery crews traveled using boats and barges along Vietnam’s rivers.
“The only way you could get around was by boat. There were very few roads.”
Two 105 mm howitzers fit on each barge, Garza said, with six howitzers per battery.
In many cases, the thick jungle was feet away from the barges and artillery guns.
“I knew what to expect and how to protect my soldiers,” he said. “We were getting attacked just about daily.”
Typically, the enemy would use mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
The barges made for easy targets.
“We had some barges that were completely destroyed,” Garza said. Several guns were destroyed, too, during his 12 months in Vietnam, much of it spent on the Mekong River.
The artillery soldiers were constantly ducking rifle fire, mortar rounds and RPG blasts from Viet Cong hidden in the jungle thickets on the sides of the river.
One tactic the Americans used, Garza said, was to have a soldier on water skis pulled from a helicopter to draw enemy fire. After the enemy exposed their positions when they fired, the American artillery would fire back with anti-personnel bee-hive rounds. Those rounds were packed with thousands of metal flechettes that would rip through jungle leaves and flesh alike.
On on occasion while Garza was on the river, an Army Huey helicopter had been shot, and was circling Garza’s position trailing black smoke.
Garza noticed it took a long time for the pilot to land the aircraft. When the helicopter finally landed, Garza asked him why it took so long to land.
He told Garza: “I kept seeing that flag. I thought it was a VC flag,” referring to the Viet Cong flag that has a yellow star in the middle of it.
The flag was not a VC flag at all, but rather a Texas flag, with the Lone Star and red and white stripes.
“I had a Texas flag that I would fly on my boat,” Garza said, adding he had a lot of Texas soldiers in his battery.
Garza said the pilot was from New York and didn’t know what the Texas flag looked like.
Early in his tour, Garza got to know Gen. William Westmoreland, the top U.S. commander in Vietnam at the time.
The four-star general would tour the barges and artillery pieces.
“He would come up every six or seven weeks and show his counterparts the battery that he commanded in World War II,” Garza said.
He last spoke to Westmoreland during the Association of the United States Army convention in Washington, D.C,, in 1969.
“At that time, I think he was chief of staff,” Garza said. Westmoreland died in 2005.
In the summer, Garza’s unit left the barges and set up the artillery on platforms in rice paddies.
“The platforms were in actual paddies and we would build our ammo bunkers along the paddie dikes,” Garza said. “Since we were the only stationary positions in the area, our platforms became the target of frequent mortar fire.”
Garza’s time in Vietnam corresponded with the Tet Offensive, a major attack campaign throughout 1968 led by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army.
Garza’s Bronze Stars and Army Commendation Medal with V device were earned for repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire and directing his battery’s guns to return fire.
A particularly bad attack came in November 1968.
Garza said a radar squad attached to his unit was picking up movement in the surrounding rice paddy, and U.S. soldiers were convinced it was enemy closing in.
Garza’s battery sent a request to higher headquarters, asking for permission to fire bee-hive rounds at the approaching movement.
The request went up to Saigon, but was denied due to the rules of engagement at the time, Garza said: U.S. forces couldn’t fire until they were fired upon.
“Around midnight, they started firing,” Garza said.
The first RPG round hit some ammunition, setting it on fire.
Garza put the fire out, but another round came in, setting it on fire again.
“We lost all the ammunition,” about 2,000 rounds, he said.
Garza’s unit eventually received air support from two Cobra attack helicopters and an AC-47 Spooky, a slow-moving Air Force plane armed with heavy machine guns.
The battle waged on until about daylight, and at the end, one American had been killed and 40 others were wounded in action. The casualties could have been far less, Garza said, if the rules of engagement had been different.
Garza’s two Silver Stars both came from his actions during intense close combat with with enemy.
“Disregarding the rounds bursting all around him, he directed the evacuation of wounded, organized firing crews and assisted in the preparation of the guns,” according to the document that accompanied Garza’s first Silver Star for his actions on Nov. 13, 1968. “Although blown from a platform near one of the howitzers by an incoming round, Sergeant Garza immediately recovered and rallied the crew to return to the weapon. When the fire became so intense as to force abandonment of the weapon, he split the crew among other section and then remained in the open to make a crater analysis which pinpointed the enemy location and led to the silencing of the hostile mortar fire.”
Garza’s second Silver Star came from his actions less than a month later, on Dec. 11, 1968, when he again rushed to a crater caused by an enemy mortar round and did an analysis to determine the azimuth from which the rounds were coming.
Garza said he was hit by enemy fire three times in Vietnam, but never left his unit.
His actions in Vietnam also earned him the Gallantry Cross with Bronze Star from the South Vietnamese Army. His only Purple Heart in his career came from his time in Korea.
While Vietnam was bad, Garza said, it wasn’t as bad as Korea, where his unit saw eight to 10 casualties (KIA) every day.
In his year in Vietnam, Garza had five soldiers in his battery killed in action, and about 55 soldiers wounded.
Many of those lives were saved because Army helicopters in Vietnam could get wounded soldiers to a hospital, oftentimes within 30 minutes, Garza said. That wasn’t the case in Korea, where American troops could be days away from a hospital. Many times, the wounded bled to death, Garza said.
After returning to Fort Hood in 1969, Garza had a letter waiting for him from the commanding general: He’d been promoted to command sergeant major.
He retired in 1973, and has been living in Harker Heights ever since.