Van Buren Veteran Helped Keep Korea Calm During Vietnam War
Nov 09, 2012 (Times Record - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Editor's Note: This report is part of a series profiling local war veterans in honor of Veterans Day, which is Sunday. The series began Thursday.
As war raged in Vietnam, James Ortiz stood guard and kept order in the still dangerous demilitarized zone of Korea.
Ortiz, 72, of Van Buren, was born in 1940 in Rome, Ga. His father, Adolphs, had come to America from Puerto Rico when he was 8 years old. James Ortiz was the youngest of Adolphs and Isadora Ortiz's children, with two girls preceding him.
"We lived on a farm (in Rome) and that's what I did when I wasn't going to school, raising cattle and corn," Ortiz said. "We didn't have much time for activity."
Ortiz graduated from Johnson High school in Rome in 1957 and decided his future was with the military.
"I got a letter to take my physical for the draft," Ortiz said. "I got to thinking 'I'm going to be drafted anyway; I might as well join and get what I wanted.' So I went ahead and enlisted in the Army."
Ortiz enlisted in 1962. "When I enlisted, I requested to go to Japan, but I didn't make it," Ortiz said.
Following basic training at Fort Chaffee, Ortiz was sent to Korea.
"It was a big surprise when I got there," Ortiz said. "The way the country was, it was so far behind what I was used to."
The Korean War had ended in 1953 in a stalemate. But U.S. and South Korean soldiers were kept on guard in the demilitarized zone to prevent North Koreans from attacking or slipping into South Korea.
"I volunteered to go up to the DMZ," he said. "I just wanted to be where I could be the most help, and, of course, it was a little more pay for the hazardous duty."
Ortiz said he did encounter North Korean hostiles while on guard.
"It was pretty bad," he said. "They would spit on you. It was quite different. They did not like U.S. soldiers."
Ortiz said he and fellow U.S. and South Korean soldiers occasionally came under fire.
"It was just random," Ortiz said. "I don't think they were intending to shoot us; it was just harassment. (But) we did have several American soldiers who lost their lives."
Ortiz said he got along well with the South Korean soldiers, referred to as KATUSAs (Korean Augmentation to the United States Army), he and his fellow U.S. soldiers trained.
"We were in the same barracks," Ortiz said. "It was a great experience."
Ortiz was in the demilitarized zone for 18 months.
After Ortiz arrived in Korea, he was joined by two friends from school in Georgia.
"It sure was (comforting)," he said. "I was the first to arrive and I was surprised to see two more from Rome come after me. I had no idea they were coming. It was great."
After serving in Korea from 1963-65, Ortiz received a 30-day leave to go home. However, when he was injured in a vehicle accident in Korea, his leave was prolonged.
"I called my company and they said you got orders for Korea," he said. "I was in the hospital at the time and the Red Cross got my orders canceled."
Once Ortiz recovered, he received orders for Baumholder, Germany, where he served as a motor sergeant and platoon sergeant.
After spending three years in Germany, Ortiz was once again sent to Korea.
Ortiz said he was surprised he was not sent to fight in Vietnam. "They were sending quite a few to Vietnam at that time," he said.
Ortiz returned to the demilitarized zone and served there as a motor sergeant. He said though conditions were tame, he and fellow soldiers still had to remain watchful.
"What we did was guard the DMZ to make sure none of the North Koreans came over," he said. "They would try to come over and set land mines, but trouble stayed up on the DMZ, it didn't go into South Korea."
Ortiz's second tour in South Korea lasted from 1967-69, after which he was honorably discharged from the Army.
"I hadn't seen much of the United States for nine years," he said. "I was ready to return home."
Ortiz returned home to Georgia, but in 1986 moved to Van Buren.
"I just liked this area," he said. "One day, I decided to pack and move here."
Ortiz began working for Georgia-Pacific Dixie Cup in 1986 and a year later met and married his wife Linda. Together, they have a son and daughter and four grandchildren.
Ortiz, who has been retired since 2002, said he devotes most of his time to his grandchildren and his yard.
"I'm a fanatic with the yard," he said.
Ortiz looks back on joining the Army and venturing overseas to serve and protect with no regrets.
"I wouldn't trade it for anything," he said. "It changed (me) from a boy to a man."
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