Command Sergeant Major(R) Francis Anthony “Tony” Cortez always knew he was going to be a soldier. His dad was a member of the Navy’s UDT teams, the precursors to the modern day SEAL teams. Seeing his father and his uncles all serve in the military instilled a sense of purpose in CSM Cortez that led him to volunteer to serve in Vietnam. It was something he wanted to do for his country. So he joined the Army and found himself heading to Vietnam.
His first night in country did not give him the warmest of welcomes. Within eight hours of arriving, the base was shelled resulting in 27 soldiers wounded or killed. His biggest memory of that night was grabbing a wounded soldier and dragging him into a trench to huddle down until the all-clear signal.
When it came time for their assignments, another soldier looked at CSM Cortez and said, “Whatever you want to do, don’t go to the First Cav Division. They’re getting their asses kicked.” Sure enough, Tony got assigned to First Cav. Tony just thought to himself, “Well, I’ll make do what I have to do” and headed out for the First Cav.
When he arrived at Bien Hoa, there was a soldier talking about the LRRP teams. He said the LRRP’s were better because they moved in small teams and not in a line like a Company. He told Tony that being a LRRP is where he wanted to be. So, when the time came to volunteer for the LRRP’s, Tony and two other men stepped forward. The soldier who told Tony to volunteer for the LRRP’s was not one of the other men. CSM Cortez said he thought, “Oh, well… shit.”
CSM Cortez did not spend long with the LRRP’s because the Blues came calling for volunteers. Another soldier told Tony not to go to Alpha Troop, they were always on the middle of it. Choose Charlie Troop because they were a bit more lackadaisical in their Area of Operation, or Bravo Troop because they were somewhere in the Middle of Alpha and Charlie in terms of action. Tony figured, if I’m going to volunteer to be in the action, I want to go with the guys who know what they are doing, so he volunteered for Apache Troop, where he spent the remainder of his tour in Vietnam.
It was serving with Apache Troop that CSM Cortez fought in some of their most memorable battles. The most notable for him would be June 17, 1970. That’s the day they raced to save an ambushed Ranger team. The fighting was fierce that day, with several units dropped in to join the action. At one point in the battle, Tony spotted a wounded soldier laying out in the open. Knowing the man would die without help, Tony dropped his weapon, ran into the open, grabbed the soldier and dragged him back to safety. Then, to prove it was not a fluke, he broke cover a second time to drag another wounded soldier back to safety.
CSM Cortez was put in for a Silver Star for his bravery that day, but it never found it’s way to him. It was found out many years later that the Major in charge of the unit told the Awards Officer that if he didn’t get a Silver Star for that day, then no one would get any awards for that day. No one really liked that Major. To his credit, the Awards Officer refused to put the Major in for a medal he did not deserve. True to his word though, the Major made sure no one else received any awards for that day and Tony’s Silver Star faded into the abyss.
This story does have a happy ending though. Many years later, Kregg Jorgenson received a letter from a pilot who witnessed the Major’s threats. He informed Kregg of the Silver Star Tony should have received and Kregg went right to work. He started calling everyone in the Army, from one desk to the other. He filled out the appropriate paperwork and tracked down the required witness statements. Then, with the help of General Funk, they were able to get the award through to the end and Tony was awarded his Silver Star twenty years after he was first put in for it. General Funk did have a little fun with the situation. The Major that no one liked, he went on to become a Colonel. Unfortunately for him, Captain Funk went on to become a General. So when General Funk called the Major and told him he had to call CSM Cortez and personally apologize to him, the man had no choice. Tony still remembers that phone call.
The return home from Vietnam was not the Hero’s Welcome CSM Cortez deserved when a protester spit on him at the airport. It continued when he would try to apply for jobs only to be told, “We don’t hire your kind.” His kind being Vietnam veterans. In a moment of desperation, Tony signed up to be a mercenary and fight overseas. As fate would have it though, his wife intercepted his acceptance letter. She went to him and told him that if he wanted to go fight, he should go back to the Army. But, if he were to go back to the Army, it was to be for a career. So that’s exactly what he did.
In his time in the Army, CSM Cortez fought in Vietnam, Grenada and Panama. He also served on other missions in Central America and well as along the DMZ in Korea. He was gearing up to head to the first Gulf War when Iraq ended up surrendering. In his time in service, CSM Cortez was awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and, as he says, so many other medals that he should be just short of being a General.
CSM Cortez is now retired and living in California.