As Miguel Llano puts it, for much of his young life, he was stuck between different worlds.
He was born in Puerto Rico but was raised in Ontario County.
“I grew up, you know between Canandaigua and Geneva, and so Geneva was where my father's friends were all Spanish. My friends were from Clifton Springs, New York — lily-white. Canandaigua — even whiter.”
Then he was drafted in 1969 and sent to Vietnam to serve as a U.S. Army radio operator.
“Now I'm stuck between three worlds. Stuck between blacks, because you may look at me and say he's black.”
But his accent, he said, is “white middle-class America, and I'm a Puerto Rican that speaks Spanish.”
He said some black soldiers approached him in Vietnam one day and asked him, “What are you?”
“And I said, ‘I’m me.’ They said, ‘Well, you don't give us the black power handshake,’ and all this other stuff, right, and I said, ‘Well, I shouldn't because that's not me.’ ”
Llano came to America in 1950 as a small boy; his father was a migrant worker for years before getting a job at the Seneca Army Depot.
After high school, Llano had tried college and auto mechanic school but dropped out of both. He completed barber school, though, and working as a barber at the VA in Canandaigua and had another gig with a band when he was drafted.
“Uncle Sam grabbed me, and I figured, ‘What the heck?’ I couldn't afford not going. I couldn't afford leaving.”
He said as a radio operator with some advanced training, he was supposed to be on a fire base in Vietnam, but he was put out in the field.
“I was out in the field exactly three-and-a-half weeks. Three-and-a-half weeks too long. I saw too much.”
Llano recalled there once was a big firefight, and the soldiers were told to pull back.
“And then the next day, we went down to do body counts. They sent us back the next day to ...”
His voice catching, Llano stopped and struck the table with his hand.
“I can’t do it. Sorry.”
He said it’s taken a long time to talk about his experiences in Vietnam, but he feels it’s important that he tries doing so.
“That's the only way you can get it off your chest. It's been over 50 years, but that stuff still bugs you,” Llano said.
“I've been back since 1971, but sometimes it was last night I was there.”
He said after friends died in Vietnam, he had to put up walls to protect himself, even after he was home and around the people he loved most.
“The longest time, I wasn't able to hug my kids,” he said. “If something happens, I'm the one who's gonna get hurt. … That's what happens to many guys I've talked to. It's the same thing. Many of us have been through at least one marriage. Why? Because you don't want to get close. Close means I'm gonna get hurt here and I don't want to get that close.”
That has improved, though, he said.
“A lot has changed. My grandchildren … love the daylights out of them. I no longer have that thing. I want to hold them.”
And while his memories of his service aren’t all good, he says the military gave him “bearing.”
“By that I mean, if I don't know something, I will tell you I don't know something, but I will get back to you. … But it gave me bearing. It gave me a way to stand. A way to walk.”