For Paul Torres, joining the U.S. Navy was an easy decision.
He didn’t want to see the enemy face-to-face.
“To shoot somebody before they shot me, I didn’t want that,” he said.
The Vietnam War was raging. He was concerned about being drafted.
“A lot of my friends were drafted,” Torres said. “They went into the Army.”
Torres’ story of his military service is being preserved as part of the Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center with the Library of Congress.
Torres, who serves as chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors and is a member of the Pueblo of Isleta, said it was an honor to be part of the project.
“It’s an honor being a veteran,” he said. “Being a Native American, we care for America. We want to help, especially during times of war. There’s lots of Native American veterans. In Pueblo country, there’s a lot of veterans.”
He is one of up to 50 veterans sharing their stories with U.S. Sen. Tom Udall’s office. The Democratic senator’s office will present a package of interviews to the Library of Congress on Veterans’ Day in November. Torres’ interview is one of six recently conducted by Udall.
“I’ve worked with him for many years,” Udall said. “My staff has reached out all over the state.”
Staff members from his offices around the state will also conduct interviews. The interviews are being done on camera.
“This is not about me, not about the interviewer,” he said. “When you have an intelligent, articulate person like Paul Torres, he doesn’t need much prompting. He knows his whole story and just tells it.”
And for Torres, who is 70 years old, that military story began when he joined the Navy in March 1968. After boot camp, he was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea as a machinist mate.
“I served four tours to Vietnam,” he said. “We were off the coast about 20 miles in the Gulf of Tonkin. We got to see some R&R. The aircraft carrier Coral Sea would stop in Japan, stop in Hawaii, stop in the Philippine Islands. We even got to go to Hong Kong, to Sydney, Australia and got to go across the equator. We were initiated as shellbacks. That was a big thing during that time in the Navy. The older sailors do things to initiate the younger sailors who have never crossed the equator.”
He reached the rank of E4 Petty Officer Third Class in his four years aboard the USS Coral Sea.
“It’s a good place to get experience, to grow up, to learn about other peoples and other countries,” Torres said of his time in the Navy. But he voiced concerns about those currently serving in the military.
“I feel for those who are serving out there today,” Torres said. “It is a whole different world. Back then, wars were fought in the jungles and certain places. Now, they’re in villages and cities. You don’t know where. You don’t know where the enemy is.”
Udall said he was interested in stories about what happened to veterans when they returned home and how they were helped by military benefits.
Torres twice served as governor of Isleta, and said the Veterans Administration benefits helped him get off to a good start in the construction business, where he rose from a laborer to a general contractor working on such projects as the Isleta Casino Complex.
He spent four years in the apprentice carpenter program where wages are low. But through VA assistance, Torres was able to receive the wages of a journeyman carpenter.
“When you have a young family and (are) just starting out, that makes a heck of a lot of difference,” he said. “All I had to do is have my time sheets signed by my boss, have my school sheets signed by my teacher and turned them into the VA. I really appreciated that and it helped me tremendously.”
Udall said it was vital to preserve stories like Torres’ forever.
He said Torres’ 12 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren will soon be able to hear his story on the Library of Congress website. He said the project could also be helpful for researchers writing about the experiences of soldiers during the Vietnam War or other wars the nation has been involved with.
The project began in 2000 and includes personal narratives, letters, diaries, photographs and scrapbooks.