MASON CITY — His life in the Army grew out of a childhood playing soldier in the yard.
After summers spent using sticks for guns and imitating John Wayne with friends outside his house, the journey toward military life for Carlos Melendez seemed inevitable.
“I was going to grow up to be a Marine,” he said via phone.
“We’d play army almost every day,” the Mason City native said of his childhood friends. “I had a wooden stick that was my tomahawk, was my machine gun.”
Now 76 and living in Tamarack, Florida, as a young man college was not his calling. The military’s offer of order and structure appealed over the temptations of college life.
“I was not what you call a stellar student,” he said. “In those days, you were a sissy if you got good grades.”
A lot of his free time was spent “partying and chasing girls and going to football games,” he said. “I’m just wasting my parents money, so I thought I’ll join the Army.”
By 1961, he had enlisted and was attending officer training school. He loved the structured environment, opportunity to meet people from all walks of life and ability to learn whatever job he wanted.
“The Army kept on saying, ‘Yeah , I will send you to that school,’” he said.
Over the course of a 20-year career in the service, Melendez, a retired major, served in several capacities including attending infantry, airborne and Ranger schools.
He went to Vietnam as a helicopter pilot first in first 1966 before returning for a second tour in 1969. He logged more than 1,000 combat flying hours transporting and extracting soldiers from combat zones, eventually earning a Distinguished Flying Cross.
His helicopter was hit three times by enemy fire, he said.
The second time, it was “pitch dark out in the mountains,” he said. “You could see all the tracers out there. It looked like the Fourth of July.”
Coming home between tours as an officer, he said he didn’t feel the same sense of being ostracized in the same way commonly felt by enlisted soldiers.
“Professional soldiers, which I considered myself to be at the time, you have a different perspective,” he said.
“My second I came (home), I went to San Francisco ... I was there at the time when” there were protesters.
Officers, “we’d go out, go get a drink,” he said. “Of course, aviators like to have a good time. There was a street there, we used to go in our uniforms, people used to buy us drinks.”
“Never forget the inhumanity of war and the men who we ask to send to war,” he said.
For combat, “There’s no way to anticipate what that’s going to be like,” he said. “It was a very intense experience in terms of requiring your attention and focus all the time.
“Were were very cocky back then,” he said. “And for the troops (we flew) to support them, so we (never quit).”
“You didn’t think about the politics of what (you were doing), because soldiers are not political,” he said.
“The guys that were there, we know what we did. We did our duty,” he said.