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Wounded in Vietnam, Buffalo veteran still awaiting a Purple Heart

Wilmer A. Olivencia, 66

Birthplace: Puerto Rico

Residence: Buffalo

Branch: Army

Rank: Specialist fourth class

War zone: Vietnam

Years of service: 1969-71

Most prominent honors: Vietnam Service Medal, Combat Infantryman Badge, National Defense Service Medal

Specialty: Infantry

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

As the patrol’s point man in Vietnam, Wilmer A. Olivencia knew he might end up dead.

“It was a dangerous job, and the least senior member of the company was assigned it,” Olivencia said. “Everyone had to do it, but the one with the least seniority had to do it more often, and there were a lot of guys with more seniority than me.”

In December 1970, the 21-year-old Olivencia was leading a patrol of about 20 soldiers near the demilitarized zone, when a firefight broke out.

“I was hit by a bullet in the left kneecap and struck by fragments on my face and inside my upper lip from a grenade,” he recalls. “To be honest with you, I thought I had internal injuries. I saw blood on my shirt. I thought I wasn’t going to survive. The medic had told me he couldn’t do anything, but what he was saying, I later realized, was that he couldn’t do anything for my leg. I was in shock.”

The medic radioed for a helicopter.

When the chopper arrived, the trees were too thick for a landing.

“The only way they could get me out was by dropping a rope ladder. I grabbed onto it, and they lifted me above the trees, and I thought I was going to get shot again because, you know, the helicopters didn’t move that fast.”

Olivencia hung on for dear life.

“When they pulled me up, I got caught on the landing gear,” he says. “The man in the helicopter was supposed swing me away from the bottom, but he must have been inexperienced. It was another bad experience for me.”

The helicopter ferried him to a hospital ship, where doctors rushed him into surgery.

“They almost had to turn my upper lip inside out to get at the fragments,” says Olivencia, now 66. He was awake during the surgery.

“They did knock me out for my leg surgery,” he says. “They said it was miracle that the bullet hadn’t taken my whole kneecap.”

Bound for Japan, he and other recuperating troops on the ship were treated to a show featuring comedian Bob Hope.

“That was very special for me,” he says. “Bob Hope had brought many other stars with him – Connie Stevens and other beautiful women. Seeing the show took my pain away for a little bit.”

After three weeks at a hospital in Japan, Olivencia flew to Boston, where he began physical therapy.

“It took me a year to learn how to walk again,” he says, “The physical therapy was six days a week twice a day.”

Honorably discharged in 1971, he left the service without a Purple Heart for his wounds suffered in combat.

“I didn’t give it much thought,” he says. “I was grateful that I was alive.”

In time, Olivencia came to realize that not only his body had been damaged in the war, but his psyche, as well.

“I’ve had nightmares ever since I got out. I dream of myself in the jungle,” says Olivencia, who credited lifelong friend Ventura Colon, a medic in the Vietnam War, for convincing him to get help at the Buffalo VA about two years ago.

Now able to better cope with war memories, Olivencia says he has begun a quest to obtain the Purple Heart he never received.

“Another friend of mine has contacted Congressman Brian Higgins to try and get me my Purple Heart,” Olivencia says. “I’m going to be sending the congressman a letter myself.”

Choking up with emotion at this point, Wilmer could not finish the interview.

His wife, Elsy, said the medal would mean a great deal to her husband.