Hank Ortega was born in December 1948 and grew up on Navy and Air Force bases, Edwards Air Force Base being his favorite. His father was a Tech Sergeant in the Air Force and his mother was “a good NCO wife.” The family was culturally Hispanic and his grandmother was a pioneering woman. By the time Hank was in high school, his father had left the service and Hank felt that he did not fit in, so he graduated from high school at 17. A friend’s brother was serving as a Green Beret, and that inspired Hank to become a paratrooper. He enlisted in January 1966 and reported for Basic Training at Ft. Bliss, Texas. After Basic, he was sent to Ft. Gordon, Georgia, for Advanced Infantry Training, even though he was supposed to go to medic training. Fortunately, he was too young to be sent to Vietnam, and was reassigned to medic training at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas. Hank wanted to be assigned to hospital work, but instead he was slotted as an Airborne Combat Medic. Arriving in Bien Hoa, Vietnam, he joined the 101st at Phu Bai, where he was assigned to C Co, 1-327 Infantry. During his first firefight, his unit suffered multiple casualties following an ambush. Hank had to treat wounds to the groin, shoulder, chest, and head. Frequently Soldiers suffered head and chest wounds because they were lying down to fight. He did not feel that his training had prepared him for what he experienced in Vietnam, stating that he saw things in combat that he had never trained for. During the battle for Firebase Veghel in April 1968, Hank recalls making hot cocoa for the wounded to comfort them before they were able to be evacuated. Soon, due to casualties, he became the senior medic in the company. Later, he transferred to Tiger Force and served under Lt. Fred Raymond. He remembers feeling safer with the Tigers, noting “it was good to sneak around.” Returning home from Vietnam, he was assigned to Ft. Bragg, where he finished his time in the Army with the Engineers. After leaving the Army, he stayed in the medical field, stating that he “liked medicine and saving lives,” and selected emergency medicine and trauma as a specialty. When he was 55, a patient who was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident was brought in, and the smell of blood gave Hank a vivid flashback. Attending reunions helps him, and he says “people who bear burdens need to share [the burdens] with their brothers.”
In this interview, he talks about his childhood, his Army service, and his continued work in the medical field. He reflects on several missions he participated in, sharing vivid details of his experiences in combat. He recalls finding 33 North Vietnamese Gaz trucks buried in the jungle. He discusses stocking his first aid kit in preparation for missions and requesting medical supplies in the field. At the end of the interview, he describes what his service means to him.