Bobby Barrera always wanted to be in the military, and once he got in, he wanted to go to Vietnam. But he’d only been there for six weeks when his entire world and life would change forever in a huge fireball. As his armored personnel carrier was crossing a rice paddy and the Viet Cong command-detonated a 500-pound bomb.
While his injuries would be severe and push him to the brink, he turned his life around, with the help of his amazing wife. He has since for the past 50 plus years dedicated his life to helping other veterans. He is an amazing person who epitomizes selfless service.
Barrera was born in Del Rio, Texas, right next to the Mexican border and about 150 miles west of San Antonio. Growing up and graduating high school in Del Rio, “my thing was I always wanted to be a Marine,” he said. He wanted to join the Corps right out of high school, but his father said to him that as the fourth child in the family to graduate from high school, he wanted Bobby to be the first one to go to college.
“I went to college for two years and decided it wasn’t for me,” Barrera said. After partying hard and drinking too hard in Junior college for two years, he knew what he wanted to do and went on his own to see a Marine recruiter. He joined up in 1968 and went to Marine Corps boot camp and advanced infantry school at Camp Pendelton, California.
He signed up with what was then just a two-year hitch. The catch was that you would have to do service in Vietnam. For Berrera, that wasn’t an issue at all. “That’s what I wanted,” he said. “When I tell some people this, they don’t believe me, but I graduated from Advanced Infantry Training on a Friday evening, and by midnight I was on a plane flying out of El Toro on my way to Vietnam.
The seed for serving in the infantry was planted long before he ever took the oath of enlistment, he said: Barrera’s dad served in the infantry in Italy during World War II. Barrera arrived in Vietnam in August of 1969 and as he puts it, “my military career lasted only six weeks.”
On September 16, 1969, he was on a mission as part of five Amtraks (armored personnel carriers or APCs in Army speak). Barrera was in the third track, which as he explained, was normally the safest place because if the enemy planted a mine in the road, the first or the second track would hit it. He and six other Marines were in the track along with Scout/Sniper Carlos Hathcock. Hathcock had 93 confirmed kills. Due to that, the Viet Cong had put a $30,000 bounty on his head.
When Barrera’s track went over an area next to a rice paddy, the enemy command-detonated a 500-pound bomb. “They were after Hathcock,” he said. “Naturally, when a bomb of that size goes off, it [ignites] the fuel cells and there was this huge fireball.” Barrera and other Marines were knocked unconscious and badly burned. “Hathcock was the first conscious man there and he dragged us to the rice paddy, where he put us in to put the fire out.”
Medevac choppers took the wounded Marines straight to the hospital ship, USS Repose in Da Nang harbor. This massive explosion would end Barrera’s military career. From Da Nang, he went to Japan and then to the Burn Center of Brooke Army Medical Center at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas.
While his body remained relatively whole from the burning explosion, he developed a rare and deadly case of gangrene. That forced doctors to amputate his left arm at the shoulder, as well as his right hand at the wrist. His face was badly burned from the explosion. His pain was unbearable. In an earlier interview, he admitted that his pain was so great that he asked his father to shoot him, choosing not to live anymore rather than dealing with the pain. Because of his wounds. he would spend time on and off for the next three years in hospitals.
It was this period, of transitioning from a Marine to a handicapped veteran, that he said was the worst of his life. ‘Trying to live as a disabled person with severe scarring was an extremely difficult situation. I had no purpose with my life,” he says. “I drifted around for about three years and was drinking quite a bit. The VA was giving me money and I was going through it as fast as I could.”
But as he says, the turning point for Barrera was when he met his wife. The two met late in 1973 and Barrera’s life changed for the better. “I was stuck in a place of darkness with no hope and no direction,” he said. “She molded me into who I am. She helped push me into going back into college. I wondered if it would be possible. Her answer was, I don’t see how we can’t get you back.”
The school in San Antonio wasn’t convinced that Barrera would be able to keep up with the school work, but Barrera, with the help of his wife Maricelia graduated three years later with a degree in psychology.
“She did everything from holding papers while I wrote to going with me to the library to [study],” said Barrera. “When I received my degree from St. Mary’s, I wrote in her name underneath mine because she had worked just as hard as I had.”
“That’s when my life changed, I left behind that darkness and gloom, a world without hope. That’s what I tell people today, that they have to have hope. That’s the biggest gift that I got from my wife… she gave me hope.” Last year, the pair celebrated their 45th anniversary.
That’s when he got active with the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and started visiting hospitals, and encouraging wounded service members that there was hope for all of them. He became a high school teacher at Del Rio high school and earned a Masters Degree in guidance and counseling.
He moved up through the ranks of the DAV and became the Family Support Center Director at Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio. “I was doing what I wanted to do…which was helping military families.” In 1998, he was named the DAV Outstanding Disabled Veteran of the Year for 1998 and from there the relationship grew. Barrera was elected National Commander of the 1.2 million DAV members at the organization’s 2009 National Convention in Denver Colorado.
“This is what I wanted to do, which is to help veterans.” he said. “I went through what happened to me so that I could help others. As you know, sometimes we need to be there for others, and other times they need to be there for us. It has been 50 years since I arrived at the burn center in San Antonio. But they always had that encouragement to give you that hope.”
A story he likes to share, as he puts it, is that doing things for others doesn’t have to be a fantastic event. For example, back in Del Rio, Barrera liked to gather all of his neighbors’ trash cans after they were emptied and place them back next to their homes.
One day he had spent some time in the hospital and wasn’t there to move everyone’s trash cans back on their property. On returning home, he found that his own trash can was still in the street. He said to his son that he needed to get out there and retrieve it. His son cussed the neighbors telling Barrera that “you do it for them every week and they can’t do it for just one f***ing time for you?” And that’s when Barrera taught his son an important lesson. I don’t do it for them…I do it for me.”
His philosophy is that getting the satisfaction of doing something for someone else is how you grow as an individual.
Barrera is a tremendous inspiration to his community as well as to other vets. He visits hospitals to speak with veterans and schools to share his story. The message that he is trying to convey: “No matter how difficult life may be, you can overcome it.” He is living proof of that. And he’s been giving back to his community, his state, and nation for the past 50 years. He is a motivational speaker and guest presenter for the DAV.
Among his awards and honors are the DAV Outstanding Disabled Veteran of the Year for 1998; LIFE’s (Leaders In Furthering Education Foundation) Presidential Unsung Hero Award for 1998; Disabled Veteran of the Year for the State of Texas in 1990 and in 1998; and Department of Defense Outstanding Employee with a Disability Award for 1997. The late Jesse Brown, Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, selected Barrera’s story of overcoming disability for inclusion in his book, “The Price of Their Blood.” In 2005, Oliver North included Barrera’s story in one of his television series, “War Stories with Oliver North.”
Each year, DAV (Disabled American Veterans) helps more than one million veterans and their families get the benefits they’ve earned. To learn more, visit www.DAV.org.
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