BEEVILLE – It was 1970, and after four years aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga, Beeville resident Raul “Rudy” Garcia was headed home. But the reception was less than warm.

“The worst thing was the way Vietnam veterans got treated when we got back. That was difficult,” he recalled. “I remember being at the Los Angeles airport flying back to Texas. There were hippies there spitting on us, flipping the bird, calling us dirty names. ... When I applied for work I was afraid to say I was a Marine Vietnam veteran.”

But on Jan. 23, Garcia was among 85 local veterans to be given a commemorative pin by U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, which marks the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. The ceremony took place in the Bee County Expo Center.

For Garcia, now 73, it was as if things had finally come full circle.

“Now people thank us,” he said. “I’d like to thank Congressman Vela. Getting that kind of recognition, appreciation makes me feel good.”

Garcia in March 1966, a dropout since the eighth grade, had been living in Enid, Oklahoma, where he was working to help the family. The 19-year-old enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and was stationed aboard the USS Ticonderoga CVA 14.

“We ran the brig, security, and at the time we guarded nuclear weapons aboard the ship,” Garcia said. “At first I was disappointed that they didn’t put me on the ground forces because, believe it or not, as a 19-year-old man, I feared communism ... I envisioned communists coming to Beeville and killing my family. I thought I had to go out there and stop them before they killed my family.”

Garcia also said, “Looking back, (being aboard the carrier) was a blessing in disguise. A lot of my friends I went through boot camp with, some came back basically disabled, and some didn’t come back at all. I say the man upstairs was watching me.”

In addition to serving his country, the Marines gave Garcia a chance to finish his education.

“I got my GED thanks to the Marines. I got my degree from Del Mar College thanks to the GI Bill,” he said. “That education is what helped me advance to having what I have right now. If it hadn’t been for that I probably wouldn’t have what I have.”

Garcia was born and raised in Beeville in what he calls a “very poor family” of six boys and one girl. 

“When I say poor, all of my cousins and friends got bicycles and B.B. guns and everything; we’d be lucky to get a pair of shoes or jeans,” he said.

The family would travel between West Texas and Corpus Christi to pick cotton. All the while, Garcia would dream of a better life.

“I had three dreams when I was a kid that seemed impossible because we were so poor. If we had bologna, that was a good day,” he said. “I wanted a two-story house with a swimming pool; I’ve had that. I wanted a Corvette; I’ve had several. And I always wanted a ranch. I got a little ranch on (FM Road) 799. Thank God the Marines, and this country, gave me that. 

“And I tell everybody that if it would have come to it, I would have given up my life for this country. ... I love this country so much that I would have gladly given up my life for this country.”

William J. Gibbs Jr. is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 343-5220, or at reporter@mySouTex.com.