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Forgotten Heroes

A highly decorated Vietnam veteran who hit bottom when he came back from southeast Asia credits his recovery to his faith, his heroes and North Harris College.

Carlos Garza was picking cotton in a field in south Texas when someone came to tell him he had been drafted. Since he didn’t speak English, an interpreter had to tell him what was happening. He was 18. It was 1968. He was going to Vietnam.

He was sent to Fort Bliss for basic training. After that came advanced infantry training at Fort Ord and then airborne school at Fort Benning. Although he occasionally got into trouble, because he didn’t always understand what his officers wanted, he says it wasn’t all bad. There were people in the Army who helped him learn how to read and write.

In Vietnam, he discovered that he excelled at life in the military. “I wanted to please,” Garza recalls. “I volunteered for everything. I cleaned latrines, walked point, and volunteered to go into tunnels.” Aptly nicknamed “Tunnel Rat,” Garza weighed 100 pounds and had a 17-inch waist.

Today, Garza carries an army backpack chock-full of memories. Faded newspaper clippings and an array of medals and commendations are ragged reminders of his tour of duty more than 30 years ago. Like many returning Vietnam veterans, Garza faced his toughest fight when he got home.

Partially disabled from injuries he received in Vietnam, Garza counted on benefits from the Veteran’s Administration to help him get on his feet. “I used my disability income to buy a house and a car,” he says. “Then the VA pulled my benefits. I lost everything.”

Unemployed and homeless, Garza felt abandoned by the country he had fought for. “I became a bum,” he says. “I had long hair and lived on a bayou behind the Harris County Jail.”

There is little similarity between the shaggy street person glaring back from a tattered photo and Carlos Garza today. Now retired, the 53-year-old lives in Atascocita. He and his wife of 27 years have four children. Garza meets with fellow veterans twice a month in Houston. He talks to groups whenever he can. He has told high school students about Vietnam. Recently, when a class was studying Afghanistan, Garza was invited to tell them about caves and tunnels.

He doesn’t like to boast, but admits he feels better once he’s told his story. “There are heroes out there,” he notes. “I hope to say something somebody picks up on.”

He says he was able to turn his life around because of a steadfast religious faith and a helping hand from heroes along the way. One of those was a friend at North Harris College.

“I came back to North Harris College to take some classes,” he says. “I got to know Dr. Bob Williams.” Dr. Williams, NHC’s vice president for administrative services at the time, helped Garza get a job as a volunteer reserve police officer at the college.

Although he has worked in several fields, as well as serving in the army reserves and the National Guard, Garza’s passion is law enforcement. “I have taken every class at North Harris College in law enforcement,” Garza notes. He has certificates in everything from peace officer training to crime scene exhumation. One day his dream is to get a degree in criminal justice. “North Harris College gave me the first step. It is a wonderful opportunity here for anybody who wants it.”

Garza volunteers as a reserve peace officer in Harris County.

“I want to emphasize that I had heroes,” Garza says. “Everybody can make something of themselves. I was a bum. I was homeless…I wouldn’t have amounted to anything without these people.”

Dr. Williams, now NHMCCD’s Cy-Fair College vice president for administrative services, remembers Garza. “You never know when you are going to make a difference in a student’s life,” he says. “I was somebody who was willing to listen to him and try to meet his particular needs. There are lots of individuals doing that at North Harris College, trying to find ways to meet students’ needs.”

North Harris College is a member of North Harris Montgomery Community College District. The college is located at 2700 W.W. Thorne Drive, one mile south of FM 1960, between Aldine-Westfield and Hardy Roads. Registration for summer classes begins March 11. For more information, call 281-618-5400 or send an e-mail to: nhc.startcollege@nhmccd.edu
North Harris Montgomery Community College District, the fourth largest community college in Texas, comprises North Harris College, Kingwood College, Tomball College, Montgomery College, seven satellite centers and The University Center. Cy-Fair College, the district’s fifth comprehensive college, will open in fall 2003.