California National Guardsman Raymond Anthony Jr. has paid his dues as an American soldier. His, and maybe five other guys’.
His first installment was made in Vietnam, where he served four tours. His most recent was paid in Iraq, where the 57-year-old Sacramento man served alongside soldiers one-third his age until an Iraqi rocket-propelled grenade sent him home with shrapnel wounds and burst eardrums.
Now, he is convalescing at home, an icon of war: the wounded soldier, dog tags dangling over bandages, with a body filled with scars and a head full of memories.
Staff Sgt. Anthony has a lot of company in that role — nearly 3,000 troops have been wounded in action in Iraq, according to the Pentagon. But few of those men and women have the kind of familiarity in their iconic role that Anthony has.
When the Purple Heart that Anthony is expecting makes it through the paperwork to his chest, it will not be his first. Nor even his second.
According to the California National Guard, it will be his sixth — a number of medals that could be notable if held by a company, much less by one soldier.
The tales behind those medals must be pulled from Anthony in incomplete chapters, stalled by twin forces common in the men and women injured in the service. One is modesty. The other is pain.
His first injury in the line of service happened in 1966, in Vietnam. Anthony was a 19-year-old Marine, the job that had drawn him since he saw “cavalry and Indian” movies as a child and decided to be a soldier. He joined as a reservist, following two brothers into the Corps, and volunteered to go to Vietnam after several friends were killed there, leaving widows and children behind.
“I thought that maybe by going over there I could take the place of another who had a family,” he said. “I could get hurt in his place.”
In that, he succeeded. A battle left him with shrapnel wounds that sent him back to the United States for six months of convalescence. He won’t discuss the circumstances of his injury — it is a memory he does not wish to revisit. He returned to Vietnam in 1967, he said, “for vengeance.”
Injured again in 1967, he returned to Vietnam in 1968, a year during which he was wounded several times, and 1969, when he was injured once. A North Vietnamese soldier with a bayonet left him with a scar across the right side of his face and a nearly detached left arm. On another occasion, he and his company were surrounded by enemy soldiers for so long they had to drain the water from their vehicles’ radiators and drink it to survive. Anthony was one of two soldiers in the company of 15 to make it out alive. He doesn’t recall the pain of receiving his wounds — more the surprise of looking down from battle to find himself drenched in blood, a limb dangling, a gash revealing bone. He remembers time flashing past, or holding still — he remembers, once in ’68, feeling like he was floating above himself, watching as his chest and face were burned as he helped fellow soldiers from a flaming vehicle.
“I don’t ever remember thinking I might be killed,” he said, something he ascribed to his Southern Baptist faith and the pressures of the moment, the need to focus on the task at hand.
He explained his willingness to return to the fight each time with words common to soldiers in Iraq, Vietnam and elsewhere through the ages.
“When you’re in combat, you build a relationship with your fellow Marines and soldiers that a civilian cannot comprehend,” Anthony said. “You’re willing, without a second thought, to lay down your life for another individual. I just knew, ‘OK, I’m hurt. I’m ready to get back in the fight.’ ”
In the end, it wasn’t Vietnam that drove Anthony out of the Marines, but the turbulent postwar period. Tired of responding as a military police officer to racial fights between Marines, he quit in 1978, moving into civilian law enforcement and, eventually, into a job with the state of California.
In 1995, Anthony joined the California National Guard, figuring that a few years of weekend warrior duty added to his decade-plus of active service would give him a second pension. But like many reservists and Guard members, he was in for a surprise: He was activated two days after Sept. 11, 2001, and sent to Iraq last May, arriving in Baghdad in late June with the 270th Military Police Company alongside his son, Sgt. Gary Ochoa.
It was a different experience from Vietnam. Anthony’s fellow soldiers, especially the reservists and National Guard, seemed less prepared for the pressures of combat, and the urban battlefield bore little resemblance to the jungles of southeast Asia.
But there were similarities, too, he said: a difficulty in distinguishing between friendly civilian and hostile combatant, and political motivations behind the wars that he did not agree with, even as he believed he was helping to protect downtrodden civilians from a dictatorial government.
Enough similarities that from time to time, Anthony says “Danang” when he means “Baghdad.”
Less than two weeks after he arrived in Iraq, Anthony was riding west of Baghdad on a night patrol that included his son when the rocket-propelled grenade exploded in front of his face. What the windshield, his helmet, and his weapon didn’t absorb went into his arm, gouging out chunks of flesh. But he was alive.
“Thank you, Lord,” he thought. And then: “Damn it. Not again.”
At first, distracted by the need to get his burning humvee out of the firefight, Anthony didn’t realize he had been wounded. It wasn’t until he was evacuated — with the help of his son, who was unhurt — that he saw the damage to his arm; not until Kuwait City that he discovered that what he thought was a rash was a blanket of shrapnel embedded in his skin; not until he was in the military hospital in Germany that he learned both eardrums were shattered.
Back in the United States, he entered the military medical system, and was frustrated to find it less efficient than the smooth Vietnam-era machine he recalled. But he also saw, in the halls of Army hospitals, soldiers with the kind of horrible wounds he managed to avoid over the years, lost limbs and terrible disfigurements. He helped them as he could, but the recollection of those wounded — from Vietnam as well as from Iraq — still moistened his scarred cheeks with tears.
“Oh, I’ve just seen so many,” he whispered. “Even though it’s been 30 years, it’s just like yesterday.”
Anthony knows about lasting injuries — the physical kind, like his Vietnam war wounds that still ache through the pain of his healing injuries from Iraq, and the mental kind, the post-traumatic stress and depression that he believes faith has helped him avoid but that he has seen kill others.
Ask Anthony how he and his fellow wounded soldiers should be treated, and his answer is quick and firm: Give them what they have coming, in benefits and compensation. And give them thanks.
“Everybody should be thankful that they live in a country that has freedom, and they should be grateful for the individuals that are patriotic and care enough for this country to give their lives for it,” he said. “We have so many people in this country that don’t give a second thought about what the military people go through.”
His own service, after 22 years, is over, Anthony believes. His burst eardrums have seen to that. But given his choice, and despite layers of scars that he always wears a shirt to hide, he would return to the line of fire in Iraq again, helping some other young soldier avoid scars of his or her own.
“I feel that I didn’t do my part. I regret that,” he said, softly. “I really feel guilty.”