Personal Reflections

Roberto “Bobby” Barrera,
Del Rio, Texas

U.S. Marine Corps, Purple Heart Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, the Vietnam Campaign Medal and Combat Action Ribbon. 

Since I was a young kid, I wanted to be a Marine.  Perhaps I watched too many John Wayne movies, but that was my dream—to wear that uniform.  When I graduated from high school I wanted to enlist in the Marines right away, and my dad wanted me to go to college.  I made his dream come true by becoming the first of his children to go to college, but after two years I gave up my Selective Service school deferment and made my dream come true.  I became a Marine.

My first assignment after training was in the Republic of Vietnam.  I was now ready to show John Wayne what a real Marine could do.  As it turned out, John was better at being a Marine than me.  After only six weeks I was assigned to a special mission planned by intelligence.  Never did I realize that that would be my last mission.  In fact, it would be a life-changing day for certain.  The mission involved a convoy of five amtracs (amphibious warfare vehicles).  I felt somewhat safe because I was riding on trac number 3.  With two tracs in front and two tracs behind us I was in the safest position of all, almost the safest position.

As the convoy started to cross the road’s shoulder there was a huge explosion; a 500-pound bomb was detonated directly under trac number 3.  Eight Marines were severely burned as the resulting fuel tanks created a tremendous fireball.  I not only suffered burns, but I also lost my right hand at the wrist and my left arm at the shoulder.  My career as a Marine came to an abrupt end. 

My life as a disabled veteran was my new beginning.  Fighting the physical challenges was the easy part.  Dealing with the psychological challenges was the most formidable part.  Tasks I took for granted became tasks I had to relearn simply to exist as a double amputee.  My recovery took many years.  Please let me rephrase my last sentence.  My recovery is ongoing.

The first part of that recovery involved having a fabulous support system.  People I had never met visited me in the hospital.  Each gave me encouragement.  Each shared with me a part of his or her life so that I might go on with my life.   My family played the most important role in this support system.  Undoubtedly, my wife, Maricelia, is the person who molded me into the man I could never become without her.  She helped me turn my darkest days, void of hope and direction, into days filled with expectations and real accomplishments. 

Disabled American Veterans (DAV) took what my wife had achieved – and believed that Bobby could accomplish even more.  I firmly believe that my being selected as Disabled Veteran of the Year in 1997 inspired me to want to do more for disabled veterans and their families.  In the previous 15 years, I helped military families as a member of the Family Support Center at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas.  In 1997, DAV gave me the opportunity to focus more intensely on individuals with disabilities even more severe than mine.  DAV gave me the opportunity to share with America’s youngest generation of disabled veterans my story that there is hope no matter how dark the moment might seem.

Disabled Veterans’ Life Memorial Foundation encapsulated what I have shared with you along with the stories of other disabled veterans with a beautiful dream, a Memorial to honor this group of men and women.  I was given the honor of sharing a personal quotation to be included as part of the permanent Memorial:

“I have a purpose in life, and that’s been to help other military families through some of what I had to go through. If what I went through will help other military families, then I’m okay with that.” 

Because of my disability I have been able to visit with many other disabled veterans and their families.  Because of my disability, just like those many strangers who visited me at the hospital many years ago, I was able to share my belief that there is hope.  I feel it was God using me to accomplish His mission, as well as the DAV mission of helping others.  Personally, I was able to finally find that elusive purpose to my life.  I’m okay with that.  Definitely.

What the Memorial Means to Me

The Memorial is a direct reflection of my journey of the last forty-four years.  Initially, I asked a question common to many disabled veterans, “Why me God?”  I experienced a lot of anger at not having an answer to that question.  I suffered.  My family suffered.  I needed some purpose as to my existence.  Through love and compassion my anger was transformed into hope.  That hope became a spirit of service.  Through service to others I found my purpose in life.  This Memorial is my country’s gift to me, a gift of that same love and compassion that nurtured me and carried me during the darkest period of my life.  This Memorial is a reflection of who I am today.  It is a Memorial of healing.  It is a Memorial of hope.  It is a Memorial of service, a Memorial of my service to my country.