Cat Cardenas for the Rivard Report
In 1967, the year Daniel Salazar graduated from Edgewood High School, he was drafted into the United States Army. By that time, dozens of friends and acquaintances in his tight-knit West San Antonio community were headed off to fight in Vietnam.
Salazar deployed alongside 10 friends. Only four of them survived.
The war left him scarred, Salazar said. Half a century after his service, he still can't shake some of the memories.
There was the death of his friend, whose life was taken just a few feet away from him at the hand of a sniper. Years after the war, Salazar said, he drove a car with tinted windows, still afraid he might get shot himself.
There were the physical scars, including those from the triple bypass heart surgery he underwent due to exposure to Agent Orange, the chemical that poisoned him from the inside.
There was the therapy, during which he dealt with the less obvious trauma, and the years it took for him to explain his experiences to his own family.
“You don’t want to think about those things, but they’re the ones that stay in your mind,” Salazar said. “I don’t regret it, because I did my best, but it’s something I wouldn’t like anyone to go through. Not only the experience, but the misery after you come back. It’s something only a soldier knows.”
Across the country, stories of loss were part of the everyday reality of the Vietnam War. But in West San Antonio, the Edgewood District Veterans symbolize a community that sacrificed and lost more than most. Founded in 2006, the charitable organization meets annually on Memorial Day at Edgewood Veterans Stadium to honor classmates who lost their lives, and to give back to the community that raised them.
During the Vietnam War, Bexar County lost 300 men, according to the National Archives report on U.S. Fatal Casualties of the Vietnam War. Fifty-five of them were from Edgewood Independent School District – most of them Hispanic, according to the Edgewood District Veterans. Ten were part of Edgewood High School’s Class of ‘67, which had 460 seniors – 235 of whom were male. The veterans group's historian, Mario Longoria, said the school district had one of the highest fatal casualty numbers in the country.
Throughout the '60s, the Edgewood school district was one of the poorest in the city. By 1968, it was embroiled in a fight for education equality that led nearly 400 students to walk out in protest of poor learning conditions. According to George Gonzalez, one of the group’s founders, young men in the district had few career options.
“For our generation, the basic truth was that we didn’t have any opportunities. If we wanted to get ahead, we had to join [the military],” Gonzalez said. “We had to find a way to get out because there was nothing for us here.”
In 1972, 20-year-old Juan Perez decided to enlist in the military. Two years after graduating from Edgewood High School, he couldn’t afford college, and upon losing several friends, he felt his only choice was to travel more than 9,000 miles to Vietnam.
Most of the men who enlisted knew how dangerous Vietnam was. In a community as close as Edgewood’s, almost everyone knew someone who had died fighting overseas. Perez – a helicopter door-gunner during the war – was told going in that door-gunners in Vietnam had an average life span of just 11 minutes. Still, he pressed on.
“It was my way out of the barrio,” Perez said.
The homecoming after their time in Vietnam was bittersweet, the Edgewood veterans said. Some described feeling guilt for having survived, while others were haunted by what they had seen. But all of them described the shame they were made to feel when they got home.
“It was a bad thing to be a Vietnam veteran,” Perez said. “Back then, you would get eggs and rotten fruit thrown at you when you got back. People would call you a baby killer without understanding what you had gone through. It hurt.”
The Edgewood Veterans formed their group in 2006, originally as a way to unite old friends and former classmates. But in coming together, the organization has given its members a place to share experiences they say no one else can understand.
“You can talk to these people like you can’t talk to anyone else,” said Perez, treasurer of the Edgewood District Veterans. “A lot of these people have been through what we’ve been through — and some worse — but together, we can talk freely without being afraid of being criticized or ridiculed.”
Years after leaving Edgewood High School, many of the veterans have stayed in San Antonio, some remaining on the city's West Side. When Gonzalez returned to San Antonio before founding the group, the fact that little had changed stood out to him as a glaring sign.
“[The district] was still struggling, it still had low academic aptitude,” Gonzalez said. “That’s why when we formed the group we were so focused on giving back. We wanted to give these kids the opportunities we never had.”
Over the past 12 years, the group reports, it has given out thousands of dollars in scholarships to children who otherwise could not afford to go to college. They’ve also given back to local businesses and donated $10,000 to help the Memorial High School band attend a competition in Florida.
“We know what these kids go through,” Perez said. “Especially the ones who don’t make the grades – a lot of us didn’t. We were motivated to pursue our education, but we couldn’t for one reason or another.”
During the war, several of the former classmates saw each other while stationed overseas. And though it seems almost impossible that inner-city kids from a school district in West San Antonio would find each other halfway around the world, they did. On Memorial Day, with five tents packed with family members and friends, the veterans showed that nothing, not even decades passing by, could tear their community apart.
“We’ve all spread out across the city," Gonzalez said. "But we always come back to Edgewood."