South Texas Heroes: Arturo Tijerina

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LAREDO, TEXAS (KGNS) - He grew up in Laredo and never left the state until he shipped out for basic training in Colorado. And his military career spanning nearly 30 years took him all over the world. Arturo Tijerina wore many hats in the Army as a paratrooper, interrogator, and even as a Green Beret. Now he's back in Laredo and sometimes even he is still stunned at the military life he lived.

This Laredo home has been in Arturo Tijerina's family for generations. And when he left it and shipped out to the join the Army in 1960 the Gateway City was all he knew. He said, "I just turned 18, I was real naive. I didn't know anything about life."

He headed to Fort Carson, Colorado in the winter and needed some pointers from his superiors. "I said what have you got all these white fences for, real tall white fences. He said they're not white fences, well they're snow," Tijerina told us.

But he acclimated, worked hard and his supervisors saw something in him. With conflict ramping up in Vietnam they suggested him for the secret clearance program.

"I had learned at the engineering agency how to control classified documents, top secret, secret things like that," he told us.

And that's what he was responsible for in 1962 when headed to Vietnam for his first tour. He said at that point the Viet Cong primarily targeted South Vietnamese troops more than Americans. After that first tour he reenlisted and told his captain he wanted to go back. "He said I don't want you going there because things are different," Tijerina told us.

But in the summer of 1964 he did go back into combat and by this time he had gone to jump school. He said, "I don't like to fly, give me a parachute and I'll go anywhere."

But his captain was right and he jumped into a much more dangerous environment. "You never see the enemy, you can get hit by it but you never see them," he told us.

He was constantly under attack. "One time I was close to getting injured, it was a scary situation," he said, "while we were in the middle of the clearing we got hit from all sides. The Viet Cong used to have a U-ambush. They would set up like that in the wooded area, you go in, then they close the rear, and you're it, you're in the killing zone."

Amazingly he didn't get hurt. He returned home and still in the military he delved deeper into the world of military intelligence. In 1968 he returned to Vietnam a third time. "By then I was trained in military intelligence, we were interrogating prisoners," he said.

And his tactics were effective. He learned the value of kindness when questioning a Viet Cong officer. "He was wounded in the leg, I got the medics to come treat him," Tijerina said, "we fed him some John Wayne silver chocolates and stuff, sea rations. He ate them up. After he ate them up I said 'do you like Americans?' He said no, no, but I like you.">

And that's the way Tijerina got his answers. But after he left his final tour he knew he wasn't done with the military and made a career of it. "I'm still in awe when I go back and think about what happened to me," he said.

And there is a lot more to Tijerina's career including a mission gathering intelligence in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. We'll tell you about it in our next South Texas Heroes report. If you'd like to nominate someone as a South Texas Hero, e-mail me at justin.earley@kgns.tv.