SAN DIEGO -- Dan Garcia was 19 when he arrived in Vietnam in April of 1968, during the Tet Offensive.
A part of him never left.
“God forgive us for what we did to the country and to its people and what they did to us. We really tortured each other,” said Garcia.
For years he was haunted by his memories and raw from wounds you cannot see.
“I tried to commit suicide and I really don’t know why I didn’t,” Garcia said.
His story is all too familiar – a college football player who grew up in Los Angeles, drafted into the Army, almost killed in Vietnam. Right away, he was shot. Two rounds went into his chest, shattered his lung and broke some ribs. What happened next, he says he’ll never forget.
“I was operated on without anesthetics initially because they had to get in a tube to drain my chest cavity,” said Garcia.
He was flown out of the battle zone in a helicopter, slowly bleeding out. He describes feeling his eyes rolling back into his head. He also describes another vivid memory of a soldier sitting on top of him, crying and slapping him to keep him awake and alive. Later on, he underwent a second surgery, again with no anesthetics.
“It was as alone and abandoned as I’ve ever felt my whole life,” Garcia said.
Instead of going home, he was sent back into combat where he was accidentally left behind by his team.
“Crawling back, knowing that men knew I was out there and had just left me, crushed me, I think I never got over it,” said Garcia.
He spent a year in Vietnam, earning several medals for heroism during combat including a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts.
Garcia left the war zone in 1969, only to return home to a different battle, beginning the moment he got off the plane wearing his uniform. He described to FOX 5 an encounter at the airport that shook him to his core.
“This little girl...she spits on me. I roll my eyes and I thought, what do you do? Did it hurt my feelings? Oh god, yeah,” said Garcia.
When asked why the girl did that, Garcia said, “she just spit on me.”
Garcia said he was in such a dark place after that, he attempted suicide, but had a sudden moment of clarity that changed his life.
“I swear to God, what I told myself is look, stop being a putz...and I told myself that you’re living for others, on both sides maybe, and you owe it to yourself and them to try to make something decent out of your life and to try to help people and that is by God what I tried to do the whole rest of my life,” said Garcia.
Garcia went back to school and earned graduate degrees in business and law. He went on to become a senior vice president at Kaiser Permanente, a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation and now leads a veterans advocacy group.
Despite his experiences in Vietnam, he says the war helped him become the man he is now and he’s thankful every day for his second chance.
“Since I’ve been spared, I wanted to do something with my life that was useful,” said Garcia.
He’s much happier these days, spending time traveling with his wife and playing with his three puppies. He’s also very much involved in a project to help build a permanent housing campus for 1,200 homeless veterans in the Los Angeles area. You can learn more about that project here: https://www.vatherightway.org/
Garcia, a Point Loma resident, gets emotional when telling FOX 5 about his visit to a Vietnamese orphanage run by nuns, a visit he said changed his outlook on life.