When Ralph R. Hernandez returned from his 13 months in Vietnam, his father was so proud of him that he insisted his son wear his Marine uniform every time they went out together.
There was a lot to be proud of. He had frequent brushes with death and received two meritorious promotions in the war zone.
But before Hernandez shipped off at the old Central Terminal on a train bound for boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., he recalled his dad saying, "Remember, you are representing the family."
Hernandez never forgot Rafael Hernandez's fatherly advice.
"I truly believe that it was those parting words that motivated me to excel in the Marine Corps. Quite frankly, I know it got me through boot camp, which was horrible."
But keeping up the family name also meant taking his lumps from the enemy and never giving up.
Stationed in Vietnam's Quang Tri province starting in August 1968, Hernandez participated in search-and-destroy missions. But when the North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas were nowhere to be found, their deadly calling card was sometimes left behind in the form of booby traps.
One such hidden explosive sent Hernandez flying through the air.
"In December of 1968 during a routine search-and-destroy mission," he says, "our platoon ran into a booby trap just off Hill 1050, and that is where I was wounded. The explosion was so devastating it actually blew me 30 feet into the air. I survived because I was carrying the radio and I was the fourth man behind the point man.
"The radio helped because the blast blew me so high that I was stuck in a tree for several seconds before falling to the ground. I was so disoriented I had no idea what had happened until I was debriefed aboard the hospital ship."
Hernandez explained that the radio on his back hooked onto a tree branch and stopped him from sailing farther through the air. Being fourth behind the point man, he added, distanced him from the full concussion of the blast.
"The point man and second behind him died," he recalls.
Thirty days later, Hernandez was back in action, shuttling about in helicopters to locations in the jungle thicket of Vietnam's "Mutter Ridge," near the DMZ.
In one memorable firefight, Hernandez recalls necessity serving as the mother of invention in an effort to get medical treatment for wounded buddies.
"We were pinned down at Mutter Ridge, and it was dark and we had three wounded Marines who needed to be medevaced," he says. "I took the blasting cap out of a grenade, peeled off the base cap and set it on fire so the choppers could see where we were located."
It was a great idea.
But the enemy had no intention of allowing a rescue.
"We never got the Marines out because as the choppers got closer to the ground, they would take heavy small-arms fire, so they had to pull away," he recalls. "Two of the Marines did survive, but one died."
Hernandez says he could have easily been one of those three Marines were it not for a slimy creature.
"We were under heavy fire from a hill, and we were actually pinned down for 10 hours," he says. "Our lieutenant sent four of us up the mountain to engage, when I noticed a leech on my arm. So I stopped to burn it off when we were hit with a barrage of fire from the top of the hill. That injured the three other Marines. Thank you, leech."
In the midst of the hazards and hardships of the war,
Hernandez's devotion and bravery did not go unnoticed. He rose to the rank of sergeant in Vietnam from private first class. As an E-5, he held the distinction of being the youngest of that rank in Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Division.
After the service, he returned to Buffalo and started selling encyclopedias and eventually worked for the Erie County Department of Health, serving as director of Medicaid managed care.
These days, he is known for his service as the West District representative on the Buffalo Board of Education. He also stays in touch with his battle buddies, George Cook from Mississippi and Bud Sault from Florida.
"I love those guys," he says. "Every two or three years, we reunite."