LAKEOOD RANCH — John Marino can’t forget because of the time when the South Vietnamese soldiers he was protecting forgot about him and left him to die while he slept in a hammock.
He also can’t forget because of the sharp pain that shoots down his leg and the three fused vertebrae that remind him of how it happened.
From 1968 to 1969, Marino was assigned to the Military Advisory Command in Vietnam, where he would be the only American to live with the South Vietnamese to train them to fight in combat.
He stayed with the 7th Division Army of the Republic of Vietnam, along the Mekong River in My Tho, Vietnam.
“My main purpose was to keep them alive,” Marino said. “I had to trust them.”
He fully invested in the Vietnamese culture, eating rats and snakes cooked with fermented fish oil, his helmet a makeshift pot.
“It all tastes the same,” Marino said. “For a while I didn’t even ask what it was.”
Marino went to Vietnam without knowing the language.
He wasn’t supposed to be an adviser in combat infantry. He was trained to be a reporter at the Department of Defense Information School at the Fort Benjamin Harrison base in Indiana.
Before that, Marino was a captain of an Air Defense Artillery unit, sitting inside the steel doors of a van full of wires and radars, ready to shoot down enemy aircraft.
Thankfully, he says, he never had to shoot.
Marino trained to shoot at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, as a 22-year-old.
His path changed — as did everyone’s — when the North Vietnamese put a full assault on South Vietnam.
Marino arrived in Saigon, Vietnam (now Ho Chi Minh City) in March 1968, prepared to be a public information officer.
He was sent to document history, not be a part of it.
But, then, the Army assigned Marino to an adviser role, aiding 150 South Vietnamese troops.
One day, Marino slept in a hammock with his M-16.
As Marino slept and a perimeter of South Vietnamese troops surrounded him, the Viet Cong invaded the still night.
The South Vietnamese troops saw the Viet Cong coming in and alerted their colonel.
The colonel said to run. The troops abandoned Marino in An Khe.
“They’re lucky,” Marino said. “If I was awake I would have told them, ‘We’re not running.’”
Gunfire woke Marino, who spun out of the hammock, grabbed his boots and pants and crawled into a water-filled ditch.
Marino layed there all night and found himself down stream the next morning.
The Viet Cong had burned down everything, leaving the hammock in ashes.
When the sun rose, the South Vietnamese colonel found Marino and reached out to hug him.
“I slugged him,” Marino said.
Marino went back to the U.S Army headquarters and had the colonel convicted for desertion.
Marino was 26 when the incident happened. It took him more than 30 years to get over it, to close his eyes without feeling the rope of the hammock and the fear of abandonment.
The burn in his leg, and his inability to stand for more than a few minutes, comes from whiplash he suffered in a 1969 helicopter crash.
After finishing a mission and heading back to My Tho, the helicopter was carrying too much weight.
The helicopter took off from rice patty with dykes on both sides. Its wheels struck a dyke.
Since the accident, Marino has had four spinal surgeries and two fusions in his neck. He’s convinced his pain comes from the incident.
When his body couldn’t wiggle out of tanks anymore, Marino returned home, to Bronx, N.Y., and got a degree in geology.
Then, Wall Street, impressed by Marino’s leadership abroad, came calling.
Marino worked at Merrill Lynch as its operations manager for 30 years.
Retired, Marino came in 2000 to Lakewood Ranch and reconnected with his first love — animals.
He rescued birds and boa constrictors for the now-closed Pelican Man’s Bird Sanctuary; volunteered with whale and dolphin rehab; and prepared food for orangutans and chimps at The Great Apes in Wauchula.
But, soon, the back and neck pain worsened and the volunteering ended.
He won’t walk in the Tribute to Heroes Parade Sunday, May 26, in Lakewood Ranch, but he hopes to feel fit enough to ride in a car along Main Street.
While he rides, he’ll think of going back to Vietnam, to the scene of the place he can’t forget.
“To go back would bring closure,” Marino said. “Time heals a lot.”
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].
IF YOU GO:
Memorial Day Tribute to Heroes Parade
When: 5 p.m. Sunday, May 26, on Lakewood Ranch Main Street
Info: Come honor military veterans and current Armed Services members at this annual parade. Proceeds from the event will benefit the Manasota Operation Troops Support. Attendees can bring toiletries and non-perishable food items to be sent in care packages to active duty military personnel. Donators are encouraged to write an accompanying note to troops. The parade will feature speeches, music, floats, face painting, grilled food and more.