SAN DIEGO -- Chester Yamaga was a 21-year-old student at San Diego State University when he enlisted in the U.S. Army.
He still remembers his grandmother’s reaction.
“This is not right, this is wrong -- but we’re American citizens,” she said.
Yamaga is a second generation Japanese American. His family was interned for years at a concentration camp during World War II. Still, his parents supported his choice to fight for the very country that treated them like subhumans.
“We are citizens of the United States and part of being a citizen is doing your duty as the country sees fit," his parents said.
That sense of duty was why he joined the Army, but nothing prepared him for the brutality of war and heroism of friends.
He remembers when his friend tried to save prisoners.
“My friend jumped out of the helicopter. I said, ‘what the hell did you do that for? There’s nothing you can do, they’re all going to die.’”
“I don’t know, I just had to do it,” his friend said.
Yamaga returned with post-traumatic stress disorder, like so many Vietnam veterans. Like others, he found himself targeted by those against the war.
He recalls an encounter with a neighbor who terrorized him one night.
“The next morning when I got up to go to work, I opened the door and every inch of the door was covered with knife gashes,” said Yamaga.
He tried to adjust to civilian life but was fired from multiple jobs -- until fate stepped in. He was invited to a party, where he was introduced to a girl named Jean from San Diego.
Yamaga didn’t know it at the time, but he had just met the woman who would turn his life around. But their first date didn’t go as planned. He admits he forgot about it. Jean left him a phone message that said, “we were supposed to go out Saturday and you never showed up.”
They ended up getting married and it was Jean who convinced him to open up about his war experience. After all these years, the most powerful memory that still brings him to tears is how he felt looking out the window returning to the U.S.
“There’s a break in the clouds and the plane comes through the break and my first sight is these purple mountains,” Yamaga said. “And the song "Purple Mountains Majesty" just came to my mind and I thought, I’m home, I’m home.”