Puerto Rican Vet Takes Pride in Military Service, Heritage
Growing up in New York City’s the Bronx, watching the 1960s television show, “Combat,” and being around family members who served in Vietnam inspired Ildelfonso “Pancho” Colon Jr. to join the Marine Corps in 1981 and serve for 25 years.
“I saw them in uniform when I was a little kid, and it really impressed me,” said Colon, who retired as a first sergeant. “There’s a Super 8 film of me running around with a plastic helmet on and a rifle yelling, ‘Combat.’ I wanted to be some type of soldier. I wanted to be in some kind of uniform since I was a little kid and here I am, 25 years later, having served in the Marine Corps, having fulfilled my dream.”
Colon’s father also served, and he told his son he was grateful to the Army for providing a way out of poverty.
“He came from a very large family, and they were really poor. The Army gave him the first pair of shoes he could call his own. He never forgot that,” Colon said. His father went on to own his own business in New York.
He said at 5 feet 3 inches tall, he had to face bullies growing up because of his short stature, but his dad gave him some sage advice.
“He told me the only way you get respect at your size is you’ve got to earn it,” Colon said. “He told me just because you’re little, doesn’t mean you can’t do things.”
Colon went through Marine Corps boot camp in the 1980s and went to the drill instructor school in May 1987. At the course, he had to learn the drill manual, Marine Corps history, how to qualify on each obstacle on the course and how to instruct how to properly go over the obstacles.
“Of course being the shortest guy there, guess who had to demonstrate all the obstacles?” he said with a smile. “To motivate the recruits when I was a junior drill instructor, I would jump over the wall and motivate all of these big guys trying to jump over the wall.”
He said drill instructor school was one of the hardest schools physically and mentally. He said his school started off with 101 students and graduated 49. He met his wife, Maria J. Colon, in the school. She retired from the Marines as a sergeant and they’ve been married 30 years.
Colon said before the drill instructor school, he had a six-month sea duty deployment to the Western Pacific, a tradition for the Marine Corps during the 1980s. “We used to guard the ship’s captain, stuff on vessels as an infantryman, supply man, whatever you happened to be, going to different places, floating around, waiting for something to happen somewhere in the world. It was pretty interesting. You never know what’s going to happen, but you’re there and we trained everywhere,” he said. He trained in Australia, visited Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. He said he learned to be a better infantryman during this time.
Throughout his career, Colon worked with military police, in the dining facility, trained fellow Marines and was on the 3rd Marine Division Rifle Pistol Team for four years, winning the Shively Trophy for the far-east division, Pacific Division one year for the pistol.
After 24 years of training Marines, Colon deployed to Iraq in August 2004, as the first sergeant of three companies. Their missions were to escort different convoys to the border, to capture high-value targets and to find weapons caches.
On Nov. 7, 2004, Colon was in Taqaddum, sitting in the turret of a light armored vehicle, performing a medevac mission with his unit as they came across an overpass on Main Supply Route Boston.
“We had been called to pick up a Marine for a medevac and there had been a decision made to change our route back to the shock trauma treatment. As we were passing the overpass, I knew we had some snipers because I had observed them a few days before, and I had felt comfortable because they had over watched to where I was going, but I kind cringed because it’s still a good place for somebody to drop something in on you,” Colon said.
As they went under the overpass, he said he saw a bright flash of light, and a ball of fire.
“It was like it was in slow motion. You can actually see and feel the heat of this ball of fire coming toward me,” he said. “My driver’s in front of me, David Padilla, he’s buttoned up. I’m the only one sticking out. I feel the sting and heat, and the shockwave swept my feet out. I landed hard on my flak jacket. I felt my vertebrae go crunch, crunch, crunch.”
Wounded in Action
Colon said he could feel the blood on the side of his face, but was focused on the mission. He kept trying to transmit to his captain, though his transmitter had been hit by the improvised explosive device. He said his Marines drove him back to the shock treatment center in Taqaddum.
“They pulled me out of the turret, my Marines, and took off my grenades and flak jacket and put me on a stretcher,” he said. “”Behind my seat, there had been two AT-4s [antitank weapons] and a box of grenades when that ball of fire came in. I’m so glad those hadn’t gone off. “The chaplain was great, but I was like, ‘I hope I don’t need you.’ The Navy doctor sewed my ear back up.”
He said in the next few days, he saw injured medical personnel brought in who had tried to come out to help him when he was injured because they had been targeted with an IED in a new white vehicle.
“The drive was concussed pretty bad, and Doctor Lynn, it tore his leg up. For a long time, I felt guilty because they were coming to save me. It’s my fault,” he said emotionally, his eyes welling up. “They didn’t have to come save me, but they were doing their job. For a long time, I felt guilty about that.”
Days later, Colon said he saw the remains of the insurgents come into the hospital due to a successful offensive campaign.
Colon cared so much about his Marines that he left against the doctor’s wishes to get back into the fight. He was out on another convoy two days later, when another truck was hit by an IED. They called for a medevac and air support. Colon had to carry the remains of a Marine he knew back to headquarters. “You don’t have time to be depressed because it affects morale, so we couldn’t show our emotions, but these guys are my kids. I loved them all,” he said.
Colon continues to care for veterans of all services through the American Legion in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico. Having post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury himself, he said he uses his knowledge of the Veterans Affairs system to help his fellow veterans.
“It’s my therapy. Being an accredited service officer for the American Legion, I learned that there’s a lot of ways that we can help,” he said. “Many of the Vietnam and Korean War veterans didn’t get the help I received. We’re here to change that. Who can better understand them than other veterans? We take care of each other.”
He said they have meetings, play games, have community events, barbecues, and help veterans with their VA paperwork. “The key is that we take care of each other,” he said. “I love taking care of them. I love hearing them talk about what they’ve gone through and sharing their experiences, especially the World War II veterans.”
He added, “I’m going to do this for as long as I can with the person that takes care of me and makes me the success I am today, my wife. We’re a team. We’ll do everything together.”
Colon said he’s proud of his Puerto Rican heritage, noting it made him a stronger Marine.
“My father told me if I wanted to eat, I had to speak Spanish, and even though I grew up in New York, I spent every summer in Puerto Rico,” he said. “I learned about my culture, and I’m very proud of my heritage. We’ve had Puerto Ricans who were Spanish citizens fighting for America as far back as the American Revolution, but we really started participating [during] World War I.”
Colon added, “In World War II, we had about 60,000 Puerto Ricans, and in the Korean War, we had about 65,000. One of the most highly decorated Vietnam veterans, Jorge Ortero Bareto, is Puerto Rican. He has three silver stars, five purple hearts and five air medals.”
Puerto Ricans, he said, may speak a different language, “but the United States of America is our country and we love our country. We want to serve, just like anybody else.”