Battles won within: Retired Soldier conquers inner turmoil from Vietnam War

By Pvt. Carlos MarquezMarch 20, 2024

Battles Won Within: Francisco Ivarra Conquers Inner Turmoil From Vietnam War
Francisco Ivarra, President of the Vietnam Veterans of America, displays photos of his time in the Vietnam War. Ivarra was born in Edinburg, Texas, his parents were migrant agricultural workers in Skagit County, Washington. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Pvt. Carlos Marquez) VIEW ORIGINAL

JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. — As heavy rain drummed against the living room window, a father sat with his three sons, sharing stories from his past. A thunderous roar enveloped them. Reacting instinctively, the father dropped to the floor, transforming their serene setting into the dense jungles of Vietnam.

“Vietnam will always be with us,” stated retired U.S. Army Sgt. Francisco Ivarra, formerly attached to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 23rd infantry Regiment, 196th Light Infantry Battalion, Americal Division, “Most of us didn't realize that we were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Francisco Ivarra was born in Edinburg, Texas, his parents were migrant agricultural workers which led his father to follow the migrant stream that eventually landed them at Scotts Migrant Camp in Skagit County, Washington.

“My dad was told that he could become a millionaire if he came to Skagit County and picked strawberries,” recalled Ivarra.

In August 1958, tragedy struck. Ivarra's father met his untimely demise in an accident. Grieving the loss of her husband, Ivarra's mother resolved to remain in Skagit County, where she single-handedly raised their six children, including Francisco. Francisco pursued his education, progressing from elementary through high school. Surrounded by the legacy of his uncles' service in World War II and the Korean War, Francisco felt a deep sense of duty to honor his family's tradition of military service.

“I graduated from high school, came home one day and my mother was making dinner. I said, Mom, I'm leaving tomorrow. She said, ‘Oh, where are you going, are you going with your friends somewhere?’” I replied, ‘‘No, Mom. I decided to go into the Army," said Ivarra.

Battles Won Within: Francisco Ivarra Conquers Inner Turmoil From Vietnam War
Francisco Ivarra mounted his Purple Heart recipient plaque in his home office at Seattle, Washington, March 5, 2024. The Purple Heart is a United States military decoration awarded in the name of the president to those wounded or killed while serving. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Pvt. Carlos Marquez) VIEW ORIGINAL

In 1967, Ivarra volunteered to serve as an 11 Bravo Infantryman, stepping into the path of duty with determination. His journey led him through rigorous basic training and advanced individual training at Fort Lewis, Washington. As the battlefield raged on, tension grew back home, and Ivarra awaited his assignment. Finally, his orders arrived, directing him to Vietnam, where he would find himself embroiled in one of America's most challenging conflicts.

As Ivarra set foot on the soil of Vietnam, a new chapter in his life unfolded with a mix of anticipation and apprehension. His journey with Charlie Company began with a swift helicopter ride to join his squad on patrol. Welcomed by his squad leader, Ivarra was hastily handed an M16 rifle.

“My squad leader told me the weapon used to belong to a fellow that was killed there yesterday,” recalled Ivarra, “I really had mixed feelings about that.”

In the crucible of Vietnam, Ivarra saw death from both sides of the conflict, experiencing the relentless nature of war. Through firefights and patrol ambushes, with each skirmish he danced on the bayonet’s edge of mortality. Yet, through the chaos and harshness of the jungle, his mind and heart became desensitized.

“We became callous, you don't have any feelings, at least for me,” expressed Ivarra, “We had already seen too much death.”

Ivarra became a seasoned squad leader. His leadership was tested on March 8, 1969, when his company spotted the North Vietnamese Army near a rice paddy field. Sensing imminent danger, he urgently advised his lieutenant against engaging with the NVA, warning of a potential ambush. His caution fell on deaf ears, leading to the immediate loss of the lieutenant and a fellow Soldier upon contact with the enemy ambush. With chaos erupting around him, Ivarra sprang into action, guiding his squad to cover behind a stone wall, shielding his new arrivals from the rain of bullets.

“They all froze,” recalled Ivarra, “I said, ‘Look, come on, everybody. Let's get behind there.’”

Despite the panic and confusion, his training and experience kicked in, his steady hand and quick thinking providing a lifeline for the newer recruits in the midst of the intense firefight.

“I could feel the bullets tearing my shirt,” said Ivarra, “I'll never forget that as long as I live.”

In the heart of a brutal firefight, Ivarra fought as his comrades fell one by one. Despite the chaos and danger surrounding them, his company rallied together to recover their fallen brothers.

“All the buddies we had lost," recalled Ivarra, “We all felt sick and sad.”

The next day Ivarra’s company entered another firefight. Ivarra was hit with enemy small arms fire and evacuated. He was transported to a mobile Army surgical hospital at Landing Zone Baldy located northwest of Chu Lai, Quảng Nam Province in central Vietnam.

Battles Won Within: Francisco Ivarra Conquers Inner Turmoil From Vietnam War
President of the Vietnam Veterans of America. Francisco Ivarra stands with a short stick in his home at Seattle, Washington, March 3, 2024. A short stick was used by U.S. Army Soldiers in Vietnam to countdown their return home with notches. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Pvt. Carlos Marquez) VIEW ORIGINAL

Ivarra was informed that there was nothing they could do. The MASH unit had him transported to the 95th Evacuation Hospital. After a month and a half spent in recovery, two officers walked to his bedside and presented him with a Purple Heart. They informed him that he was being sent back to his unit to continue the conflict in Vietnam.

“They said, thank you for everything that you're doing out there,” recollected Ivarra, “we're gonna release you, you're going back to your unit.”

When Ivarra rejoined his unit, his friend entrusted him with the burden of carrying bandoliers, while still enduring the ache of his injuries. Each step up the hill was a battle against pain and fatigue, a test of his will. The weight seemed unbearable, and thoughts of surrender crept in, said Ivarra. In those trying moments, echoes of his father's wisdom surged within him, fueling his determination. He dug deep, pushing beyond his limits, refusing to yield to the mountain of his own doubts.

“Tienes que tener aguante [You’ve got to have stamina],” recalled Ivarra, echoing the words of his late father.

As Ivarra's time in the unit dwindled, he diligently carved notches into a sturdy cane, each mark a silent countdown to his departure. Amidst the turmoil, this tradition kept him grounded, a reminder that his days in the battlefield were numbered. With each notch, he reflected on the challenges faced, the victories won, and the comrades lost, preparing himself for the bittersweet moment when he would leave the battlefield behind.

“Everybody that was near the end in Vietnam had a cane and you will notch it off until the day you come home,” said Ivarra.

On the day Ivarra was set to return home, his brother, Earnest, who served at a different unit as an armorer at Hawk Hill in Vietnam, decided to drop him off at the airport. Despite their separate experiences in the war, Earnest wanted to show his support for Ivarra's journey back home. Their farewell was a simple yet heartfelt moment, a brief pause in the midst of wartime chaos.

“It was so great, but I was very sad because I was leaving my brother," expressed Ivarra.

Amidst the turbulent era of the Vietnam War, Ivarra's return home in 1969 was not met with open arms. The public outrage and protest against the conflict had cast a shadow over those who had served, leaving them feeling unwelcome in their own country.

“My other brother picked me up at three o’clock in the morning to avoid facing protesters,” recalled Ivarra.

Battles Won Within: Francisco Ivarra Conquers Inner Turmoil From Vietnam War
Francisco Ivarra, President of the Vietnam Veterans of America, displays his Americal Division patch in his home at Seattle, Washington, March 5, 2024. Francisco Ivarra served as an Infantryman in the U.S. Army in 1968 through 1969. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Pvt. Carlos Marquez) VIEW ORIGINAL

Upon returning home, Ivarra found himself engulfed in a different kind of battle: sleepless nights haunted by the harrowing memories of his time in Vietnam. In an era where the mental toll of war was not fully understood or diagnosed, he grappled silently with his inner turmoil. The torment of his experiences remained locked within him. He bore the weight of his unspoken struggles alone.

“I would stand up in the middle of the night, look out the window and I would see the Viet Cong,” remembered Ivarra, “I didn't want anybody to know, I drank alcohol to self-medicate.”

Two decades after the war, Ivarra took a crucial step towards healing by seeking help from a psychologist at Veteran Affairs. Together, they embarked on a journey to unpack his experiences and confront the lingering effects of the war. For the next 20 years, Ivarra delved into his memories and issues, guided by the compassionate support of his psychologist. Through their sessions, he found a path to understanding, acceptance and ultimately, peace.

“I made a good adjustment, I stopped drinking and started loving my sons like I should have,” expressed Ivarra on his treatment with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Thanks to the efforts of groups like the Vietnam Veterans of America, PTSD was officially recognized as a mental health diagnosis in 1980.

Today, Francisco Ivarra is the president of the Vietnam Veterans of America chapter in Washington state. His mission is clear: to stand as a pillar of support for his fellow veterans, offering the understanding, compassion and solidarity that he once sought for himself.

“I'm very proud to be a Vietnam veteran, I wouldn't change it for anything,” expressed Ivarra, “I love helping my brothers, my sisters, the nurses that served, we're very proud of them.”

March 29 is now recognized as National Vietnam War Veterans Day, thanks to the signing of the Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act on March 28, 2017. This act not only honors the sacrifices of Vietnam War veterans but also designates March 29 as a day to prominently display the US flag. Today, organizations like the VVA have made significant strides in providing resources for veterans through channels like, ensuring that those who served have access to the support and care they deserve.