PORT LAVACA - Despite graying beards and wrinkled faces, the veterans honored their flag with rigid salutes and straight backs.
From across the state and beyond, veterans from the Vietnam War and other conflicts gathered Saturday at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4403 outside Port Lavaca. They traveled from their homes to remember the Battle of Ia Drang and those they had lost in that faraway Vietnamese valley in November 1965.
The men, forever linked by their shared experiences from the battle, visited with each other throughout the day. They shared lunch, pleasant conversation and deeply etched memories of the fateful days they had endured in the Ia Drang Valley.
"It's important so that they are not forgotten," said Jacque Rudd, honorary member at the post. "It keeps them alive."
Nov. 14-18, 1965
Robert Saucedo should have been leaving the war. Instead, he was riding in the 16th helicopter in a formation high above the jungle on its way to the Ia Drang Valley.
"We were supposed to get out on Nov. 28," Saucedo, 75, recalled. "They told us if we didn't meet resistance, we would go home later in the day, but we did meet resistance."
They landed in the valley on the morning of Nov. 14, a Sunday. A little after noon, the valley began its transformation into a place where death and destruction ran rampant.
Saucedo, 24 years old at the time, was an Army air cavalry infantryman. He and about 10 others present at the battle's reunion Saturday had been sent to the valley to find and kill a large group of North Vietnamese soldiers.
The resulting multiday period of fighting saw almost 100 Americans killed and countless more Vietnamese dead. Saucedo said he could still picture moments of horror from the battle.
"On the second day, they dropped a couple of napalms in the (landing zone), and a couple of guys bringing in choppers - the engineers - they got burned," he said with eyes distant. "They ran to our foxholes. We treated them for burns."
In a kind, almost diminutive voice, Saucedo described images he cannot shake.
"We treated him for burns. His face was on fire. His weapon was on fire," he said. "It was bad."
Saucedo said the memories sometimes creep into his life. "Even if you want to forget them, they don't go away," he said.
Most recently, while gazing at the treeline from outside his home, he was transported suddenly back to Ia Drang. He said he had forgotten the image until that day at his home in central Texas.
"The grass was about, maybe, 12 inches tall. The wind was blowing. I was looking across an open field. ... That brought memories of when I was there, where we were," he said. "That day just came to me. ... It just hit me. How can you forget?"
Born in Refugio in August 1941, Vince Cantu, 74, said he wasn't supposed to be drafted.
"The biggest mistake of my life was marrying my first wife," he said. "She was the one who turned me in to the draft board. I'm pretty sure of that."
Joe Galloway, a photographer and reporter embedded with Cantu's battalion for U.S. News and World Report, captured the battle's events with his camera.
Galloway, a former Victoria Advocate reporter, would go on to memorialize Ia Drang through photography and a 1992 best-selling book, "We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young." That book was adapted into the 2002 film "We Were Soldiers," starring Mel Gibson.
Cantu said he vividly remembers seeing the reporter in Ia Drang.
"I looked down, and I saw this guy coming from behind a big old termite hill, taking pictures," he said.
Cantu was searching for the bodies of killed American soldiers at the time.
"I said, 'Joe! It's me, Vince Cantu, you remember me?" he said. Later that day, Galloway snapped a now-famous picture of Cantu.
The picture was featured on the cover of a December 2010 publication of Vietnam Magazine. In the photograph, he is running toward the tarp-wrapped body of a killed American soldier.
Boots poke from the cover as Cantu holds his helmet against the backwash of the helicopter's blades. Cantu is 24 years old in the picture.
Martin Latigue, 75, believes in the power of prayer. His recently published book, "How to Pray in Combat When Your Mind is Off," examines his experiences during the war and how prayer helped him survive.
"Whenever we was under attack, when I felt like this might be it, instead of trying to say words, I would just chant the name of Jesus over and over: 'Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,'" he said. "Jesus understands. You don't have to say anything to Jesus. When you need to pray, he knows what your needs are."
But after returning from Vietnam, Latigue had changed, he said. He couldn't and still cannot remember one of his favorite Psalms, the 23rd.
"I'd go an ambush at night with the recon, and I would say the 23rd Psalm over and over and over," he said. "Even after the war, I could never remember the 23rd like I had all my life. It seemed to have completely erased the fact that I knew the 23rd Psalm from memory. I could never repossess that power."
He said he doesn't know why he forgot.
"It just went away," he said. "I stressed myself out. Whatever happened, it caused me a problem. I've never been able to understand that."
Although Latigue said memories of the war still visit him from time to time, those horrifying experiences witnessed in combat have taught him the true power of prayer.
"You start pondering, 'Why am I going through this?' and then you start worrying about stuff you don't need to worry about," he said. "I've learned when any time I get anything that I'm concentrating on that's negative, I'll just stop and pray, and it goes away. Just try and pray."