Not A Hero: A Story of Honor and Family
The Texas Story Project.
“I’m not a hero, I never earned any medals. I was just a poor boy who fought for his country”
If you sit down with 90-year old veteran and current real estate broker Carlos Mena, you could hear many interesting stories about growing up on the mean streets of San Antonio, the deadly jungles of Vietnam, or even bar stories from the many pubs he drank in all around the world. As he speaks, one might notice the many envelopes on his desk addressed to the different churches and charities that he donates to regularly, just one of the many services he still provides for his community.
One might also notice a chipped little box with oriental designs. If you ask Mr. Mena about this box, he will dismissively explain that he picked it up while in Vietnam. Therein lies the true value behind the object, as a representation of the role in history Mr. Mena courageously played throughout his life, regardless of his attempts to minimize it.
Born in San Antonio to Mexican refugees in the year 1928, Mr. Mena found himself orphaned at the young age of 10. His father vanished and his mother was taken before his eyes by tuberculosis. He learned at an early age that this cruel world owed him nothing, and he would have to fight for whatever he wanted, including survival. The youngest of four siblings and a high school drop-out, Carlos recalls walking past the gates of St. Mary’s, a local university, and a place of opportunities which laid beyond his reach. Taken in by his aunt, Mr. Mena worked to help support his new family, while also in search of adventure, exploring haunted house, snake-filled lakes, and hitchhiking trains, though still compelled to stay in San Antonio.
That changed however, when he enlisted in the navy at the age of 16 to fight for his country which was still embroiled in World War II. He remembers going to a fruit cart and eating as many bananas as he could to reach the weight requirement. Though happy to serve his country, Mr. Mena grew tired of the close-quartered corridors of the navy cruisers, and retired from the service after the war.
He did not stay retired for long however, and soon found himself reenlisting, this time as a soldier of the US army. The San Antonio native now found himself traveling across the globe, meeting new people, exploring different cultures, and frequenting every bar. Multilingual for most of his life, Mr. Mena quickly caught on to whatever language he found himself surrounded by, including French and German, a skill utilized by both him and his monolingual comrades.
While witnessing the outside world change around him, Mr. Mena also saw change within his own country. Mr. Mena recalls the segregation from when he first enlisted, as Mexican and African American soldiers found themselves sitting and socializing separately from their white brothers-in-arms. He recalls fraternizing within the small group of Hispanic ranking officers at the time as well.
Though enlisted at the time, Mr. Mena did not fight in the Korean War. Since he had no family at the time, he once offered to fight in the war in the place of his friend who already had two children, asking only for beer money in exchange. This request was denied and Mr. Mena’s friend was sent into a war from which he never returned home. Mr. Mena often looks back at this moment, and wonders about how different his life, and those of his descendants could have been were things only slightly different. Many in his family consider this moment as fate having other plans for the young soldier from San Antonio.
Mr. Mena did however, fight for several years in the Vietnam War. It was during the war he achieved the rank of master sergeant, and became a target of the Vietcong, who had placed bounties on all officers, himself included. Mr. Mena has many stories from his time during the war, too many to be mentioned in this article. From run-ins with the Vietcong (which included his own personal barber), to the dangerous dealings in the jungle, to the hate and scorn he and other soldiers received from the country that he had fought for after the war. It was also during this time that Mr. Mena purchased a small decorated box for his wife, who had recently given birth to their first-born son back home. He recalls citizens congratulating him on the birth of his child and calling him “papa-san” before he had even been told the news that he was a father.
Despite the promise of promotion, Mr. Mena retired from the army after the war in order to focus more on his family. He and his family returned shortly thereafter to El Paso, where he had first met his wife, Juanita. Throughout the following years he had four children and countless jobs, from postman to the owner of his own bar, and one of the few bars to sponsor a Little League baseball team at that. He worked long hours to ensure his children could receive the best education which had been denied to him as a child. By chance, Carlos entered the world of real estate, which he continues to play a part in each day. Today he leads one of the largest real estate companies in El Paso. Mr. Mena returned to San Antonio recently for the first time since he left, in order to drop off his grandkids at St. Mary’s University, the same school he had once walked past as an orphan on the streets all those years ago.
Mr. Mena possesses very few souvenirs and items from his journeys, other than his repertoire of interesting stories within his head. This is where the true value of the box originates, because it is a representation of the long and historic life he has lived.Mr. Mena has often said that he is not a hero, that he has earned no medals and deserves no fanfare. But there is a seemingly insignificant box which sits in his office, and serves as a reminder of all that he has gone through, all that he has achieved, and all that he has given to others throughout his life. Whether he views himself as a hero or not, his family, and history itself most certainly will.
Nicolas Mena McKay is a senior History major at St. Mary's University.
Posted October 17, 2018