Aug 26, 2021 - Politics & Policy

The last Marine in Saigon on Afghanistan

Juan José Valdez the last U.S. Marine off the roof of Saigon's U.S. Embassy, looking at photos at his Southern California home.
Juan José Valdez in Oceanside, Calif. Photo: Telemundo Noticias

The last U.S. Marine off the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon says the Afghanistan mission was too long, and he questions its purpose.

The big picture: Juan José Valdez's last-minute escape is recalled as Americans watch the images of Afghans rushing toward aircraft at the Kabul airport. The Mexican American master gunnery sergeant told Telemundo Noticias the anguish and despair seen in Afghanistan as the U.S. carries out a chaotic withdrawal is triggering memories of the similar scramble during his last days in Vietnam.

  • The former embassy guard said he's worried about the future of women in Afghanistan, as he was about the women in Vietnam.
  • Valdez recalled, “They would give us the children, saying 'Please, at least take my children out. I’ll stay if I have to, but take my daughter away.

Details: Thousands of Americans remain in Afghanistan, along with tens of thousands of Afghans awaiting Special Immigrant Visas.

  • Multiple news organizations have reported that the Taliban has turned away Afghans, including some with documentation from the U.S., from roads to the airport and even beaten some at checkpoints.

What they're saying: "We spent so much money, so many weapons, and so many infantry and Army deaths, and for what, for what?" Valdez told Telemundo Noticias.

  • Valdez told the San Diego Union-Tribune he believed the withdraw in Kabul is worse than the one in Saigon because the fate for the Afghans who worked with the U.S. during two decades of occupation is unknown.
US civilians board helicopter inside the American Embassy compound in Saigon to escape advancing North Vietnamese about to capture Saigon.
US civilians board a helicopter inside the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon to escape advancing North Vietnamese about to capture Saigon. Photo: Nik Wheeler/Corbis via Getty Images

Flashback: Valdez was one of the last 11 U.S. Marines out of Vietnam before the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, and he was featured in the 2015 PBS American Experience documentary, Last Days in Vietnam.

  • In the film, the San Antonio, Texas-born Marine talks about sitting on the roof of the U.S. Embassy with 10 other leathernecks, waiting for a helicopter to rescue them as North Vietnamese forces were about to capture the city.
  • "We were kind of sitting down around ... looking at each other [and] wondering... if they had truly forgotten about us."
  • A chopper finally came, and Valdez ordered everyone to board. But as he prepared to jump on, Valdez slipped. The ramp went up as he dangled in midair.
  • The Marines pulled Valdez into the chopper at 7:58 a.m. Saigon time, and he officially became the last U.S. Marine to leave.

The state of play: The fact that Valdez's heroics were largely overlooked until recently is another example of the often-overlooked experiences of Latino veterans in U.S. wars. Their contributions to Operation Enduring Freedom during 20 years in Afghanistan are just being recognized by the general public.

U.S. Marine Cpl. Sam Garcia of Taos, N.m., on October 17, 2010 in Kajaki, Afghanistan.
U.S. Marine Cpl. Sam Garcia of Taos, N.m., on October 17, 2010, in Kajaki, Afghanistan. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

By the numbers: Hispanics comprise around 16% of all active-duty service members, according to a USA Today analysis of Department of Defense data.

What we're watching: The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the nation's oldest Latino civil rights organization, is pushing for the passage of the Brandon Act.

  • The bill would ensure that service members can receive a confidential mental health evaluation referral, without fear of retaliation.
  • The proposed legislation is named after 21-year-old Navy aircrew mate Brandon Caserta, who died by suicide in 2018 at Naval Station Norfolk.

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