King City veteran earned Purple Heart in Vietnam
With his godfather and relatives having all served in the U.S. Army since World War I, it was only natural that John Soliz would enlist.
He didn’t expect that he would survive getting blown up in the jungles of Vietnam, earning a Purple Heart — and suffering the psychological effects of being so closely acquainted with death.
Signing up in 1968 as the United States was embroiled in the Vietnam War, Soliz was sent to Fort Ord, a a U.S. Army post on the Pacific Ocean coast in California. Not long after, he attended basic medic school at Fort Sam Huston in San Antonio, Texas.
While medic school trained him in the basics, it didn’t mention specific battle injuries that he would later encounter or the toll it would take on his and other veterans’ psyches.
“What they didn’t impress upon us was the psychological consequences of being there,” said Soliz, an 11-year King City resident. “It was horrendous. But I survived.”
As the military plane he was a passenger on began the descent into Bien Hoa, Vietnam, all Soliz can remember is seeing the tops of trees in the nearby jungles. However, as the aircraft approached the airport, it turned into a “moonscape” with countless artillery shells having pock-marked the ground, Soliz recalled.
Soliz was assigned to a tank crew. While his services as a medic were sporadic — meaning his unit would sometimes go for days without anyone getting hurt or needing help — he was always there for whoever needed help.
“I take great esteem and pride in knowing I never failed to go to the guy, no matter what the conditions,” he said, adding that injuries he saw ran from soldiers striking their heads on the roof of a tank after hitting land mines to being severely burned in an explosion.
One day, Soliz recounted, his company of 15 tanks and several Army personnel carriers was traveling through a heavily forested area.
“We’re going through the jungle, and we came upon an enemy base camp — unexpected — and all of a sudden, they opened up on us,” Soliz said.
Since he sensed his fellow soldiers in the tank would be OK, he joined the infantry, who had already exited their vehicles. The last thing he remembers is thinking how foolish it was that one soldier who had never been in combat was standing up atop his tank.
“I got blown up,” Soliz said. “A rocket-propelled grenade hit the tank and blew me in the sky. I went up higher than the tank.”
Suffering from shrapnel in his leg and foot, he crawled to a mass of wounded soldiers and prepared to be hoisted onto a helicopter, where the pilot lowered a seat attached to a long cable. That’s when he recalled from his training that a helicopter pilot under fire has the discretion of cutting that cable to escape danger.
“As soon as I started going up, I started thinking, ‘Oh man, I hope he doesn’t cut the line,’ because he was getting shot at,” Soliz said. “But he stayed there and got me up.”
Soliz was awarded the Purple Heart.
While he was lucky to have survived, Soliz’s time in Vietnam was far from over. He served two tours of duty, and when his wife later became pregnant and the family needed medical insurance, he joined the Army again. He admitted that he sometimes dealt with drug issues, saying he was “just a mess” at one point.
Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after he retired from the service with the rank of corporal, Soliz eventually found a job working for the VA Hospital. He remembers seeing many veterans shuffling through the hospital with a spaced-out look — prescribed drugs to help them cope in the 1970s before doctors knew how to treat PTSD properly.
“I’m going to go out on a limb — they probably didn’t think about PTSD as being real,” Soliz suggested. “It was a few years after that that I started to get help for myself because I was hard-headed. I didn’t want to believe that anything happened to me.”
Since confronting those demons and letting that “emotional garbage” loose, Soliz said, he’s been happy to be able to take pride in his service to his country.