Sergeant Charlie Ochoa volunteered for the Army one week after his high school graduation. His intent was to be able to use the Army GI Bill to be able to attend college when his service was completed. Sergeant Ochoa entered Army life with the attitude that the government was going to pay for his college so he needed to earn that benefit. He was not there to just make it through his time, he was going to give them the best that he possibly could. It didn’t take long to prove he was a man of his word.
Upon completing Basic and Advance Infantry Training, Sergeant Ochoa was sent to Airborne School. It was there, out of a class of 400 officers and 800 enlisted men, that Charlie selected Honor Graduate in his class. As a reward for his hard work, Sergeant Ochoa was then sent to Panama for Jungle Warfare training. He continued to follow through on his promise to earn his GI Bill benefits by being named Soldier of the Month for the USARSO Southern Command for May of 1969. Sgt. Ochoa used that award to immediately file his paperwork to be sent to Vietnam.
Sgt. Ochoa was taught a very sobering lesson his first week in Vietnam. There was an accident in the barracks and two soldiers were killed. Charlie will always remember that memorial service. Someone was at the podium and read the names of the soldiers killed. Someone in the back stood up and responded with, “He was killed on the field of battle.” Charlie said it taught him real quick that there were no do-overs in war. He needed to get things right the first time because there won’t be a second chance.
Having been an M60 machine gunner with an Airborne Infantry Unit in Panama, Charlie figured he would be with an infantry division when he arrived in Vietnam. But before he was assigned to an infantry company, he heard about a unit called the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LLRP). Learning about the important, yet dangerous, role they played, Charlie figured that would be a good place for him to earn his college benefits. So he volunteered to join the Rangers and become a LRRP. His “give 100%” work ethic continued to pay off as Charlie was sent to Recondo School after about five months with the team. The expectation was that Charlie would come back ready to be assigned his own LRRP team as their Team Leader.
As Team Leader, Charlie’s number one priority was teach his soldiers how to do it right the first time so they wouldn’t have to hope for a second chance that might not be coming. His goal was to make sure everyone of his soldiers made it home after the war. It’s a goal he’s happy to say he achieved, but there were some close calls.
The job of a LRRP team is to move silently in small groups. They are there to observe and report, not to engage the enemy unless a last resort. When you were only a five or six man team, when it went bad, you could lose half your team in the first few moments. Sometimes there was no choice though. That was the situation Charlie and his team found themselves in. A Viet Cong soldier was coming down the trail and there was no way they would be able to avoid him. Their only choice was to engage and hope he wasn’t walking point for a much larger force.
Within moments of engaging with small arms fire, the defensive claymore mines were tripped. The whole jungle seemed to explode around them in a mass of fire, sound, and exploding trees. Charlie felt a tug on his arm and the Vietnamese scout next to him was calling for a doctor. He had blood coming from his mouth and a bone sticking out of his arm. Charlie just told him they would get a doctor later, right now he just needed to keep laying down fire.
As the battle waged on, it became apparent they were facing an enemy force too large for them to handle on their own and they called in the Apache Blues for reinforcement. In less than twenty minutes, helicopters were overhead as the Blues linked up with the ranger team forming a defensive perimeter ready to lay down fire. This enabled a helicopter to hover above the jungle and hoist the severely wounded South Vietnamese Soldier for a flight to a hospital. Sergeant Ochoa is the first to say that without the Blues, he may not have walked out of the jungle that day, and is still extremely grateful for their help. The ironic part of the story is that when Apache Blues member, Kregg Jorgenson, was previously with a Ranger Team, pinned down and need of help, Charlie was one of the volunteers on the helicopter sent to save him. Sometimes life comes full circle.
After eleven months in the field, Sgt. Ochoa was moved into a recruiting position for the Rangers. It was a way to let him extend for enough time in country to be allowed to leave the Army 90 days early. Life came full circle again as now it was Charlie meeting the new soldiers as they got off the plane and asking them who thought they had what it took to be a LRRP. Before he would take his selections to the Rangers, he had a little test for them. He waited until they ate dinner and then took them for a very long, very grueling run in the Vietnam heat. He said more than a few of them lost their dinners and their desires to be a LRRP. Of course, he had a trick of his own on those runs, he would make sure to eat a very light dinner. He figured it was bad form if it was the Team Leader out there coughing up his dinner in front of the recruits.
Charlie left the Army after nearly 18 months in country. In his service to his country, some of Sgt. Ochoa’s medals include a Combat Infantry Badge, 2 Bronze Stars and 3 Purple Hearts. He returned home to marry his high school sweetheart and they are now happily retired and living in Texas.