PLANADA — Raised working in the fields of Planada and a resident of Merced, 69-year-old Carlos Ramirez was drafted to fight in the Vietnam War in 1966.
"There's a few of us from Planada drafted back in the '60s," Ramirez recalled, adding that two of his brothers also served in Vietnam.
He served in the 25th Infantry Division, and received a Purple Heart after stepping on a punji stake while on patrol in Vietnam.
A punji stake is a sharpened stick placed into the ground at an angle and hidden by a Viet Cong soldier. The stake entered above Ramirez's boot, directly into his calf muscle, and he was hospitalized. Fortunately, he recovered from his wound and his walking wasn't affected.
At the time he was drafted, Ramirez was working as a traveling magazine salesman and hadn't given the military much thought. He was sent to basic training at Fort Gordon, Ga.
"That's when it all hit me. Vietnam was going on," he said.
He stepped off a plane and into South Vietnam in January 1966. He still remembers the heat and humidity that greeted him. "You kind of go into a survival mode," he said.
Within eight months of his deployment, Ramirez fought in a fierce two-day battle with the Viet Cong at Pleiku Province, in the country's central highlands. "After that whole situation, the sad part was loading up all the body bags of the guys who didn't make it," Ramirez said.
He's proud of the time he served, Ramirez said, and remains active in local veterans organizations like Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, where he was commander from 2010-11.
"You don't know what freedom is unless you go to other parts of the (world) where they don't have what we have here," he said.
Ramirez said people do seem to have a greater appreciation for veterans now than in the past. "I've had people come and thank me for my service and stuff," he said. "It's a lot more open than it used to be."