It’s not often you receive a letter from the President of the United States. Of course, letters from the President---especially to young men ages 18-25--- were pretty common in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. But they weren’t the kind of correspondence that most looked forward to getting. They were letters telling you that you had been drafted. Worse, you were being drafted during wartime.
Pueblo buddies, Larry Alvarado and John Cordova, both got presidential correspondence back then. Like most young men of that era, opening the letter was not great fun. For most, unless they could find a ‘plan B,’ for the next two years at least, they would be property of Uncle Sam. They would also be prime candidates for all-expense paid trips to Southeast Asia. Viet Nam.
Cordova got his letter in 1963, a few years before Viet Nam became a household word. Alvarado got his four years later, and by then Viet Nam was a conversation in most households in the country. Young men were dying and the debate on the rightness of this faraway war was bubbling.
The draft---two years of military conscription---was inarguable for Cordova. He was going. But not to the Army. Even though another branch of the military meant serving twice as long, he chose the Air Force and a four-year enlistment. In Cordova’s family, military service was just what you did. “My grandfather was in World War I and I had an uncle in Korea. My Dad was drafted in WWII, but he had medical issues,” said Cordova.
When Alvarado was drafted, Viet Nam had grown from a skirmish to a full-fledged conflagration. In 1967, he was just two years out of high school but within months of receiving his draft notice, found himself in Viet Nam. Worse, he went as ‘Eleven-Bravo,’ the Army’s job code for infantry. But joining the military was just what young men like Alvarado did. “There was just no way around it,” he said.
His father was an Army veteran and a POW who was part of the Bataan Death March, a nightmarish ordeal orchestrated by Japanese forces in WWII. He also had uncles who served in Korea.
Alvarado got lucky. Despite his job description, he ended up as a driver for his company commander. But, like a lot of Viet Nam veterans, still ended up with health issues from the chemical defoliant, Agent Orange. Today, he receives a disability from the Army for the long-term health effects it caused.
Still, both men say they’re proud of their service and glad they answered the call. Cordova said he was lucky. He got training in a job he never imagined. After basic training and technical school, “I got a top-secret clearance,” in cryptology. “I went straight to Karamursel, Turkey,” he said, “where we monitored Russian communications 24/7.”
The time Cordova spent monitoring Soviet communications was a critical time in U.S.-Soviet relations. The Cold War was a full-blown reality and deciphering cryptic messages was crucial to the military effort.
Like Alvarado, Cordova remains actively involved in veterans issues in Pueblo, And, he says, if any young man or woman ever asks, “I always recommend the Air Force,” he said. “I enjoyed the work, enjoyed what we were doing making a contribution to the nation’s security in a different way than being in combat.”
While his work in the Air Force did not translate into the civilian world, Cordova did carry part of his training into a 27-year-career as an engineer with the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Alvarado’s transition to civilian life was complicated with health problems caused by Agent Orange. He worked at Pueblo’s steel mill for a while, dabbled in college and spent a few years with the U.S. Postal Service before his disability came through.
Today he immerses himself with veterans issues in Pueblo. He, along with a few other people, was instrumental in the Latino Profiles in Courage program.
Both men say they did their service not because they had to. Just the opposite. They say they did it because they were asked to serve their nation.