As the United States' chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan comes to an end, an Oceanside Marine Corps veteran is remembering his experience jumping into the last helicopter to leave Vietnam in 1975. The veteran shares how at one point he wondered if he and his companions had been forgotten during the evacuation.
“These were the last 11 Marines in the very last helicopter and that’s me, the very last guy to jump in,” said retired Master Gunnery Sgt. Juan Jose Valdez, pointing to a photograph from 1975.
"The Marine Corps was my life,” Valdez, 84, said from his Oceanside home. He trained in Camp Pendleton and later worked there until his retirement. It's been decades since he jumped on that helicopter and got out of Vietnam, but the memories are still vivid.
“I thought maybe I would be one of those guys to get killed eventually,” he said.
Valdez survived being sprayed with agent orange, and his final mission was to protect the troops that remained in the embassy waiting to be rescued. Two Marines were killed in a rocket attack one day before the Fall of Saigon.
“That’s how it is in Vietnam. The whole embassy compound was surrounded and you didn’t know if North Vietnamese snipers got mixed up because they wanted to get out and they had thrown a grenade,” he recounted.
Valdez's experience more than 45 years ago has him drawn to what's happened in Afghanistan.
“If they stayed behind in Vietnam they were sent to education camps, but in Afghanistan, they might get beheaded,” he said.
Valdez said he's glad the U.S got out, but wishes the exit was less chaotic.
“All the money that we pumped there, and we left so much of our equipment there. So many people got killed, just like in Vietnam they got killed,” said Valdez.
Photos: Oceanside Veteran and Last Marine to Leave Vietnam Reflecting on Afghanistan
Back in April of 1975, as Valdez and his team waited on the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, they hoped a helicopter would come for them. Eventually, one did, and they were the last group of Marines to evacuate.
“I made sure the other 10 or nine Marines were aboard and then I came in. And the ramp, you could see behind me it was starting to go up and that helicopter wanted to get the hell out of there, you know,” he said.
Through his 30-plus year experience of serving the country, Valdez said the most important lesson learned was how it’s better not to be the first to leave.
“General Wilson, who was headquartered in Camp Smith Hawaii, he sent a message, he said 'My Marines don’t stop. As long as there are Marines on the ground, they will continue to fly as long as all my Marines are out.' And that’s how it happened," he said.
More than 58,000 American soldiers died in Vietnam and around 2,500 lost their lives in Afghanistan.