CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — One of the Coastal Bend's most recognizable veterans has dedicated his life to helping his brothers- and sisters-in-arms.
Lazaro O. Camarillo III is better known by ‘Airborne’. He says he grew up quickly in Vietnam, as he saw and did things there he'll never forget. Those experiences helped forge who he is today, though for many years he tried to keep Vietnam a distant memory.
“When I came back, I never told anyone I was a veteran for 13 years,” Camarillo said.
His experiences in Vietnam left Camarillo with severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But when his father, Lazaro Jr., died in 1990, he left Camarillo a letter urging him to honor his service and wear his ribbons.
“If you don't want to wear them for yourself, wear them for the ones you left behind,” Camarillo said, remembering the letter. “They allowed you to be a father, later you're going to be a grandfather. Wear them for them.”
Camarillo was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1968. By 1969, he joined the 101st Airborne Div., the ‘Screaming Eagles’, as they fought their way through Vietnam's A Shau Valley.
“We spent 122 days straight in the A Shau Valley,” he said. “Charlie Co., 2nd (Battalion), 501st (Infantry Reg.).”
He survived the Battle of Hamburger Hill and several others, but one day stands out as a reminder of how deadly war can be. Camarillo said he was walking point when his platoon was ambushed twice.
“All those years I blamed myself for not doing my job,” he said. “It was my job to take care of my men. It was my job to pay attention, to listen, to smell, to look.”
Five friends died that day.
All these years later, Camarillo still blames himself. It's their memory which drives Camarillo to serve veterans through the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
As state commander, Camarillo has a new fight: making sure today's veterans are treated better than he and his fellow Vietnam vets were when they came home.
“I’m hardcore -- I'm not too likable,” he said. “I don't care; as long as I get the help for my veterans.”
Camarillo was wounded several times in Vietnam. He was retroactively awarded one Purple Heart years later, and says he's in the process of making a second official.
These days, Camarillo proudly wears his decorations.