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Life at Baker Hall is prelude to military rigors for medic in Vietnam War

Roberto Becerril,72

Birthplace: Puerto Rico

Residence: Buffalo

Branch: Army

Rank: Specialist E-5

War zone: Vietnam

Years of service: 1965-66

Most prominent honors: Vietnam Service Medal, Army Medical Badge

Specialty: Combat medic

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

As an orphan at Baker Hall, Roberto Becerril learned how to stand up for himself, and that proved good training for his service in the Army.

The Catholic nuns at the Lackawanna orphanage taught him values that included respect for others and hard work, he says. There also was a Buffalo Fire Department captain, James Kelly, who worked part time at Baker Hall. On his nightly rounds, Kelly had once caught Becerril smoking a cigarette in bed.

“He told me how I was putting everyone at risk, but if I promised never to smoke in bed again, he wouldn’t report me,” Becerril says. “I 100 percent honored his request. It was the beginning of a good relationship. He became a second father to me.”

In fact, when Kelly heard that the Ford Motor Co. Stamping Plant in Woodlawn was hiring, he called Becerril, who had just graduated from high school in 1964, to tip him off. Becerril was hired to work on an automated welding line.

But there was the matter of the Vietnam War and the draft. Becerril had been classified 1-A and realized that it probably was inevitable that he would be going to Vietnam. “I decided to volunteer for the draft. I wanted to get the draft behind me,” Becerril said.

After being trained as a medic, Becerril says, he was pleasantly surprised when he learned he was assigned to a base in Germany, though when he arrived, he discovered a different type of conflict. “Things were pretty hostile racially in Germany between the troops. I was asked by a sergeant that if trouble hit the fan, ‘which side will you go on?’ I told him that ‘whoever caused the trouble for me, I would take care of that person,’ ” Becerril says, explaining that although he was Hispanic, he had no desire to take sides and become embroiled in those types of tensions.

Becerril says he is certain that he came under the sergeant’s scrutiny because he could stand up for himself, an attribute that Becerril credited to the nuns at the orphanage.

Germany was not for him, he decided. He would rather take his chances in Vietnam.

And while some may see his decision to request a transfer to the war zone as jumping from the frying pan into the fire, Becerril says Vietnam taught him the value of life and made him a better person. “The 1st Cav was so mobile. We would fly in on a helicopter to an operation and set up a perimeter and a field hospital. They would bring the wounded, the dead and even sometimes the enemy, Viet Cong and regular North Vietnamese soldiers who were wounded,” Becerril says of his service with C Company, 15th Medical Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile).

But it didn’t matter to the enemy that Americans were assisting their wounded. The hospital tent sometimes ended up a target, particularly at night when mortar rounds and small-arms fire came dangerously close.

“We were usually safe in the hospital tents, but we had to do everything to protect ourselves because the infantry was out on operations,” Becerril recalls. “There were times when we ended up defending ourselves in foxholes.”

One incident that sticks out occurred late at night at a base camp.

“We had a couple beers and went to bed, and I woke up and I saw a Huey helicopter spraying this position,” Becerril says. “I got dressed and jumped into a bunker. A sergeant came up to me and another medic by the name of Riddle and said they have casualties in the 15th Artillery Company from the ammo dump. He said, ‘Go get ’em.’

“We went down this hill and could see the ammunition exploding. We were shaking like leaves because we had to go into that. But the minute we entered that firing zone, all fear ended and we did what we had to do. We pulled five guys out of there.”

For that action, the two medics were recommended for the Bronze Star.

“Capt. Jones told us he was putting us in for the Bronze Star, but it never materialized,” Becerril says. “I don’t know if he put the paperwork in or not.”

When Becerril returned to the States, his best friend, Raul Russi, who went on to become one of Buffalo’s most highly decorated police officers and serve as chairman of the New York State Parole Board, paid him a major compliment.

“He told me that ‘from a wild, restless kid, you became a well-mannered, calm person.’ He noticed the change in me. It made me feel proud. Like I said, Raul is my best friend, and I would do anything for him,” Becerril says, adding that they had met as young teenagers at Boys Vocational High School on Oak Street.

Becerril returned to his job at Ford on the automation-tender welding line.

“It was the most boring job, and after three months, I saw a person with a blue shirt on, and I asked around, ‘Who is that person?’ When I was told he was a union representative, I asked, ‘What does he do?’ I was told, ‘He hears problems and tries to resolve them, enforcing the contract.’ At that instant, I realized I wanted that job.”

After acquainting himself with the duties of the post, he said he was approached by other United Auto Workers members who were running a slate of candidates and asked whether he wanted to join them. The rest is history.

As the first Hispanic union officer at the plant, Becerril was elected and re-elected, holding on to the post for about two decades, before becoming a die-setter/crane operator and eventually retiring 15 years ago.

Becerril says he is the proud father of two sons – Buffalo Police Officer Roberto Becerril Jr. and Paul Becerril, who installs high-end computerized sound systems. Married to Rosemary Becerril, a student counselor at Starpoint Central School District, Becerril said he rarely thinks about his military service, though the horrors he witnessed in Vietnam occasionally surface in nightmares.

“I’ll start screaming,” he says, “and my wife will calm me down.”