I usually post about World War II veterans but as today is National Vietnam War Veteran’s Day, I’m posting stories about a good friend, Ralph Garcia, who served in-country and continued to help veterans and his country for years afterward. Photo above is him in recent years standing in front of the Vietnam War Traveling Wall.
The designation was made official with the passing of the Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017. On this day in 1973, the last U.S. troops departed South Vietnam, ending nearly 10 years of U.S. military presence there.
Thanks to Ralph’s wife, Sandy, for providing me with photos of my good writing buddy. RIP Ralph. You were really a blessing to me and our Bluffton Christian Writing Club.
In 1964, Ralph Garcia was a 22-year-old Marine serving in Turkey when he saw the James Bond movie, From Russia with Love. One scene showed Bond entering the Kapali Carsi Bazaar in Istanbul. As a Marine, Garcia had often been there. He thought, like most young men, “Wow! A spy is what I want to be!”
Watching that movie first started Garcia thinking about espionage and intel with the CIA. Married with a family back in the US, Garcia pushed the dream to the back of his mind, never imagining it could come true.
Garcia was born in 1942 in East Chicago, the section of northwest Indiana just over the state line referred to by locals as ‘Da’ Harbor’. Its young male residents, including Garcia, called themselves ‘Harbor Knights’.
As East Chicago was then and still is a steel town, a resident’s existence was measured in the number of years a person attended high school before heading off to work in a steel mill for the rest of his life. Most people settled for breathing dirty air until they died.
At first, Garcia believed everything his culture told him. He quit school at age 16 because his girlfriend had become pregnant. Rather than run away from his responsibilities, he tried to think of a solution to support his family.
In 1959 at age 17 Garcia, now married, enlisted in the Marines. He was happy to receive a steady paycheck and he especially liked marching down the street in his uniform to show off for his family.
Over the next several years, Garcia received training in various locales around the world, including Okinawa (photo above) and the 2nd Marine Air Wing Station at Cherry Point, North Carolina. At the latter Garcia helped establish communications for the Marine Air Control Squadron Six during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
The following year an even more momentous national event occurred – Lee Harvey Oswald shot President John F. Kennedy. As Garcia wrote in his book, Harbor Knight: “We later learned Lee Harvey Oswald had been in my Marine unit when it was stationed in Japan – MACS-2. Oswald learned his riflemanship in the Marine Corps and then shot the President of US.”
Appreciating the discipline and structure of the military life, Garcia re-enlisted in the Marines. Tests revealed he had an aptitude for languages and he attended Communications Technician School in Pensacola. Later, he studied the Farsi language (Iranian) at the Defense Lang Institution West Coast in CA.
After graduating from the course, he was assigned to Karamursel, Turkey with Company F Marine Support Battalion.
When an offensive was established by the US against the North Vietnamese, Garcia volunteered to go to Vietnam. He received orders to join Company L in Vietnam.
By now, Garcia was the father of three sons. Before heading overseas, he took his family back to East Chicago. In July 1968 he checked in to Camp Pendleton where he received training on guerrilla-type tactics. In October he flew to Da Nong and was assigned to Company L Marine Support Battalion, which was a pseudonym for the Intel unit.
Although armed with a gun, Garcia only used it a couple of times. Instead, he was armed with his honed skills of gathering information. “I was in charge of a processing and reporting section,” he said. “Our job was to anticipate what the Vietnamese would do.”
The Marines worked 12 hours per shift. They also performed duties as guards around the perimeters.
The troops lived in buildings made of mortar and tin roofs. “We used mosquito netting to lessen the risk of malaria,” he said. Garcia was afraid of rats and in Vietnam there were many.
While in Vietnam, Garcia made two career decisions — he would leave the military and he would pursue his dream job of working for the CIA.
Garcia wrote to the government organization, asking for an application. Weeks later, an official wrote back, saying people at the CIA were interested in interviewing Garcia. He happily spent hours completing the 34-page application.
Garcia continued his military service while waiting for a response from the CIA. On his last day in Phu Bai he was delayed from catching a plane to Da Nang when his unit was attacked during the night. He had already turned in his weapon so he could do nothing but wait for a respite.
When he missed his flight, due to the attack, Garcia caught a later flight back to the US. He made his way to Chicago and home. It was 1969 and he was happy to have survived Vietnam.
Eighteen months after sending his letter of interest to the CIA, Garcia was interviewed and hired by the government agency.
His first permanent assignment was in South America. He completed additional jobs in other Latin American countries, including the revolution in Chile in 1973.
Garcia worked for the CIA and for a short stint, the Drug Enforcement Agency, before retiring in 1992. He had divorced in 1973 and remarried in 1975.
He and his second wife, Sandy, and a granddaughter moved to Bluffton, IN. For many years they were active in local politics, Boys and Girls Club, local Vietnam veterans group and volunteering. Ralph died in November 2016.
As for the opposition on the home front that he and other Vietnam vets encountered, Garcia said, “I didn’t wear my utility jacket or anything that depicted me as a Vietnam veteran from 1968-1991 when I joined the Vietnam Vets of America. I’m still proud of what I did in Vietnam.” “You have to be outside of the US to appreciate the types of liberties we enjoy here,” he said. “I think many people take these for granted—freedom of religion, freedom to vote, freedom of speech, freedom to say something against someone else. It’s a great country.”
Harbor Knight: From Harbor Hoodlum to Honored CIA Agent by Ralph Garcia
Available from iUniverse