Tormented by the memories of seeing men he commanded killed in war, Medal of Honor recipient Jose Rodela has battled a tragic paradox since he retired from the Army in 1975.
He came face to face with it Saturday when he was among veterans honored before the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, a high school all-star football game that has been played annually in San Antonio since 2002.
Rodela loves the Army and believes in the nobility of serving, but there’s another side to his distinguished military career: pain and anguish.
“I didn’t want to come out today,” Rodela said. “I don’t like to remember the people that I lost. It makes me feel proud to see these soldiers in the stands today and proud that I served, but it also brings back bad memories. I don’t think of this celebration. I think of the people who didn’t come back. They had families. That’s why I don’t like to come to things like this.”
For the record, the West held on for a 39-36 victory against the East before a crowd of 35,687. San Antonio did not have a player in the game, but Madison coach Mark Smith and Saint Mary’s Hall coach David Beaudin were on the West coaching staff.
Quite frankly, I didn’t go the All-American Bowl to watch a football game. I went to meet Rodela, who was born in my hometown of Corpus Christi and dropped out of Miller High School after his sophomore year to enlist.
Rodela, 77, has lived in San Antonio since retiring from the military. He served two tours in Vietnam with the Special Forces, better known as the Green Berets, in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
Rodela received the Medal of Honor from President Obama last March in a ceremony at the White House. Rodela almost didn’t make the trip to Washington.
“To be honest, I didn’t want it,” Rodela said. “I’ve got too many memories from the war. I don’t want it. I told the commander I don’t want it, but he insisted, so that’s why I accepted it. I lost too many people in the war. Doggone it, they have families.”
Rodela received the Medal of Honor for his heroism during a battle in Phuoc Long Province, South Vietnam, on Sept. 1, 1969.
Serving as the company commander of a mobile strike force, Rodela “repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to attend to the fallen and eliminate an enemy rocket position,” according to his U.S. Army biography, during a battle that continued for 18 hours. He sustained wounds in the back and head. Thirty-three men in his company were wounded and 11 were killed during the battle.
Rodela was awarded the country’s highest military honor as a result of the Defense Authorization Act. It mandated that the Pentagon conduct a review to ensure that no prejudice was shown African American, Jewish American and Hispanic American veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War worthy of consideration for the Medal of Honor.
“I don’t consider myself a hero,” said Rodela, who was a master sergeant when he retired. “I’m just a regular Special Forces retiree. That’s all. This is all too emotional for me.”
Rodela commanded a company of Cambodian soldiers, many of whom he recruited, during his two tours in Vietnam. He trained them, lived with them and came to admire their courage and loyalty.
“When I brought them from Cambodia to Vietnam, they brought their families with them,” Rodela said. “Their wives, their children. I got to know their families. I recruit people for what? To get them killed? They knew what they were doing and they got paid, but it still hurts. I don’t forget it because I lost a lot of people in the war. I’d go out and recruit them and after they die, I feel bad.”
Rodela’s blinked back tears before continuing.
“That’s what hurts the most – I recruited them,” he said. “It’s tough.”
Rodela said he’ll always be haunted by the death of a homeless 10-year-old Cambodian orphan his company took in.
“He wanted to help us,” Rodela said. “He helped recruit Cambodians go to war with me.”
Rodela developed such a bond with the orphan that he began making plans to adopt him and bring him to the United States. But those plans were shattered when the horrors of war cut the orphan’s life tragically short.
“Walking next to me, he stepped on a mine,” Rodela said. “He got killed and I got wounded on the right side of my body. I blame myself for that. He shouldn’t have been there, but I couldn’t stop him. Every time we’d go out to war, he was already in the back of the truck. He didn’t want to stay behind.
“He was such a beautiful child. I already thought of him as my son. That’s what hurt so much. Losing him was the hardest thing I went through in Vietnam.”
Rodela, who also received wounds in his right arm, walks with a limp today because of the shrapnel he took in his right leg.
The oldest of 12 children born to Guadalupe and Juan Rodela, Jose grew up in westside Corpus Christi. He enlisted in the Army in 1955, only weeks after completing the 10th grade at Miller High School.
“The Korean War was just finishing up,” he said. “That got my attention.”
Rodela was presented his high school diploma in a poignant ceremony at Miller after he received the Medal of Honor.
“It was special, like getting the Medal of Honor,” he said with a chuckle.
Rodela has three children from his first marriage. A son and a daughter live in the same Corpus Christi home he grew up in. Rodela remarried about 10 years ago, but he lives alone now. His second wife, Margarita, lives in a nursing home.
While Rodela still has strong ties to Corpus Christi, he leaves no doubt about his love for San Antonio and its people.
“They respect the military very much in San Antonio,” Rodela said. “It’s beautiful. We have a great spirit in this city.”
A few minutes later, Rodela walked out of the Alamodome.
“He’s a very humble man, but he told you the truth,” said Ramiro “Ram” Chavez, a Vietnam War veteran who drove Rodela to the Alamodome on Saturday. Chavez, a retired school administrator who lives in Corpus Christi, is a well-known advocate for military veterans in South Texas.
“I’m very honored that he trusts my friendship and that I’m able to take him different places,” Chavez said. “I tell him, ‘Look, you need this recognition. These folks, they respect you and they want to honor you. You’re their role model. They just think the world of you.’
“He’s a very fine man. He does feel very uncomfortable, but not because of the people. It’s because of his experiences. I think a lot of people understand that.”