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(Printed in VietNow magazine 2012.  Photo:  Sp5 Daniel Torrez with son Daniel Torrez II)

With the cold winds of November still near by, I am reminded that there are two things about Veterans Day that always irk me.  Number 1:  it’s one day out of the year.  Veterans Day should be 365 days of the year.  Number 2:  all the politicians will be out in force admiring this noble group of citizens and standing up for their issues.  Only a third of them will mean it.  (You can check out your politician’s voting record on veterans’ issues and their approval ratings given by veterans’ organizations at Project Vote Smart.   http://votesmart.org/

I come from a family of veterans.  Dad served in WW II and fought in the Saipan campaign.  My oldest brother Bob served in the Army and fought in the Ia Drang Valley of Vietnam.  My older brother Wayne served in the Air Force, and my younger brother Dave served in the National Guard.

For the past seven years I have been doing my utmost to honor all veterans, especially my family members and other veterans I am honored to call friends.  Once in a while I will get an email or get contacted by a stranger who just wanted to mention where he did his service, or his dad/brother/friend who served.  I always feel humbled by a veteran who wants to tell me anything.

I felt that way about Daniel Torrez II, when he spoke with me via email about his father who survived the Ia Drang Valley ambush.  Naturally I could empathize with his interest, as that is the very battle my brother barely survived.   And, I’ve learned a great deal about that battle and its heroes in the past seven years.  But what I didn’t know was that Daniel’s father, Sp5 Daniel Torrez, had secrets about the Ia Drang Valley ambush.  And that those secrets affected my family, too.

Daniel Torrez Senior tried to keep his Vietnam War secret hidden.  Even when his little sister Irma gave him a copy of We Were Soldiers Once…And Young by Joe Galloway and LTG (Retired) Hal Moore, Mr. Torrez only mentioned to his daughter Delores that the number of kills in that first night in the Valley was wrong, that it was actually many more.  But her father never again talked about November 1965 in the Ia Drang Valley.   His son, Daniel II, adds, “He did not speak freely of the war, and when he did it wasn’t much.”

When Mr. Torrez died of a massive stroke in September 1997, he was surrounded by his family.  Son Daniel still feels the loss.  “My whole life my father has been my hero.  It’s hard to fathom that it has been so long since he passed.  I still remember picking him up from work sometimes. We would talk about life.  Not as father and son.  We were getting to a point in our relationship that we were more like friends.”  He knew about his father’s military life and admired his dad’s commitment to service.   “For as far back as I can remember, anytime I needed to do a report, I did it about my father.   Or about the army, Vietnam, The 1st Cav.  I remember from about the 3rd grade on I didn’t wear a regular jacket.  I wore one of his field jackets.  I wore them until they didn’t fit me anymore.”

Daniel II had tried before to learn more about his father’s war experiences and never had much luck.  “The things I knew about what happened in the Valley I learned from newspaper and magazine clippings my mom had saved.”  That’s when he discovered that his dad had received the Silver Star.

Curiosity about his dad’s experiences in the Valley was peaked.  What had his dad done to be awarded such an honor?  What had his dad lived through?  The son’s quest became urgent after his cousin attended a book signing for We Were Soldiers.  When author Joe Galloway realized the connection to the Daniel Torrez he had known in the Valley he signed the book, “…hero medic of LZ Albany.  We remember your dad – who kept over 40 wounded soldiers alive and safe thru the longest night of their lives.  We looked for him for years in the wrong town.  Be proud of him always.”

Galloway’s touching tribute to his father took Daniel II to Facebook to see what he could find out about the ambush and who else had known his dad.  This time, his Internet research brought him straight to the man who would change Daniel II’s life in a way he could never have imagined.  Freddie Owens was the key.   Freddie Owens not only knew Daniel’s father, he had been with him in the Ia Drang Valley – and he knew his secrets.

Freddie Owens is a man of substance.  A man you take seriously.  One who true soldiers respect without reservation.  In November 1965, Freddie was jumping into the Ia Drang Valley, along with Daniel Torrez II and my brother.  “…the only thing you can do is look at the guys that you’re with and look ‘em straight in the eye….You can’t pamper the situation.”   Freddie still marvels at how anyone from Herrick’s cut off platoon[1] survived the night.  Freddie survived the assault near LZ X-Ray and got to LZ Albany.  He adds, “It was a walking massacre, a walking massacre.  And we figured that we had went through the worst of times at X-Ray, and it was only beginning.”  Freddie was wounded near LZ Albany, patched up and went back into the fighting.

I met Freddie seven years ago at a special reunion for the survivors of the Ia Drang Valley ambush.   It didn’t take very long for me to realize that Freddie was a man of integrity, compassion, wit, and intelligence.  It did take me a little longer to know all that he does for others.  And even after these seven years of friendship, there is still a great deal for me to learn about Freddie and all he does for his “brothers” and their families.

Freddie’s the go-to person for anything relating to the ambush in the Valley.  He made himself available to all the survivors, walking them through 3 AM night terrors or the paperwork at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.  When he visits the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall with a first-time visitor, he is careful to slow down the pace and take it like he does his own life:  one step at a time

When Freddie began to get numerous calls from family members asking about their deceased husband, brother or father, he always answered their questions or directed them to someone who would know.  Freddie has never met a person he has not wanted to help.  That’s when he got the idea to put up a Facebook page that would serve as a point of contact for the survivors, families and friends of the First Cavalry Division who served in Vietnam.  He called it “We Were Soldiers Once and Young:  Ia Drang Valley 1965” and it went live in April 2009.  Since then Freddie estimates that the site averages one hundred fifty hits a day.  Between September and December the hits have been as high as four hundred because of the information submitted for Veterans’ Day activities.

That’s how Daniel Torrez II found Freddie.

Freddie recounted to Daniel the truth about his dad.  During that fatal ambush of November 1965, the kill zone was full of dead and wounded American soldiers.  Without the means to take out all the wounded, Sp5/medic Daniel Torrez from El Paso, Texas, would not desert the men who needed him.  Though not looking forward to spending the night in the Valley, he grabbed an M-60 machine gun for himself, then proceeded to pick up weapons from the dead and place them near the wounded so they could protect themselves.  He stayed with his wounded men all through the long night.  In the morning, the choppers returned to finish picking up the wounded and the dead.  Daniel Torrez was regarded as one of the best men in his platoon…and he was a hero.

Freddie told all this to Daniel II, and the great respect given to his dad by his fellow brothers in arms.

Then Freddie called to tell me another of Sp5medic Torrez’s secret.

My brother suffered a near-fatal hit in the attack at LZ X-Ray.  His back was shredded by mortar.  Four of his men carried him in his bloody poncho out of the perimeter to the medical evacuation zone.  My brother was in serious trouble.  It was this very same Sp5/Medic Daniel Torrez who stopped my brother from bleeding to death that day in the Valley.

I was stunned at this connection to my brother.  So was Daniel II. “I was already in awe of my father.  After talking to Freddie and you, I am amazed that I can hold him in even higher regard.”

Daniel II is still learning about his father.  “My cousin in New Mexico and a few other family members have been talking about looking into getting my father awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor (CMH) posthumously.  I remember hearing two of my uncles talking at my dad’s funeral service about how my father should have gotten the CMH.  When he found out his superiors wanted to nominate him for it, he told them to please not do it.  He didn’t deserve it.  He was only doing his job.  He only did what his ‘brothers’ would have done in the same situation. ” Daniel II would like his dad to receive the Medal, but he doesn’t need it to prove that he was a hero.

But that is the men of the Ia Drang Valley:  they served fully, courageously and heroically.  They just do not bother to tell anybody.

I thank the spirit of Sp5/Medic Daneil Torrez for saving my brother’s life, along with so many others.  Thank you, Freddie Owens, for your many years of service, especially in the Ia Drang Valley, and to the service you continue to give to the children and grandchildren of those with whom you served.   This salute is for you, too, and all your brothers in arms and of the heart.

I now know that one man’s story does not stand alone.  For every action in the Valley, and in every battle fought in Vietnam, there are many whose very actions saved lives, honored their families, and bred the genes of a hero within themselves.  Those genes are now being passed on, generation to generation.

Peace to all veterans, and thank you for your service.

[1] Herrick’s platoon became separated from the rest of the battalion by approximately 100 meters when Herrick went after the North Vietnamese.  An intense firefight quickly erupted in the clearing only to quickly disintegrate for Herrick’s 2nd Platoon.  Within approximately 25 minutes, five men of 2nd Platoon were killed, including Herrick.  Herrick gave vital instructions to his men before he died with orders to destroy the signals codes and call in artillery support.  After Sergeants Palmer and Stokes were killed, leadership of the platoon went to Sergeant Ernie Savage.  Eight men of 2nd Platoon were killed and 13 wounded.  Under Savage’s leadership, and with the extraordinary care of platoon medic Charlie Lose, the men held their spot for the duration of the battle at X-Ray.

— ( c) St. John 2011