South Florida

Here are five South Florida heroes who served combat tours

Introducing ‘The War Within’

A 10-part documentary series from McClatchy Studios follows three U.S. veterans living with PTSD. Watch the full series at facebook.com/WarWithinShow/
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A 10-part documentary series from McClatchy Studios follows three U.S. veterans living with PTSD. Watch the full series at facebook.com/WarWithinShow/

On Veterans Day, we celebrate and honor those who answered the call to defend the country, who took an oath to serve — sometimes staying close to home; other times, traveling great distances to fight enemies on their soil. Young, old, male, female, representing all religions, races and creed, 18.2 million veterans live in the United States today.

Wendy Pantoja, Florida Army National Guard

Wendy Pantoja, 27, says it was her parents, both immigrants, who inspired her to join the United States military. Originally from Barranquilla, Colombia, they arrived in the late 1980s to Miami, where they settled and raised their three children.

Wendy recalls the sense of pride and gratitude that filled her home growing up. Her parents taught her and her siblings to be appreciative of and responsible to to the country that had opened its arms to them.

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Wendy Pantoja in uniform.

“They were very patriotic, always showed us to pay your taxes, give back to your community, because they were so grateful when they came to this country.”

Joining the military felt like the right thing to do for Pantoja. It followed the principles with which she was raised and seemed like the best way to give back to her country. So in 2012, she joined the Florida Army National Guard and worked her way up to the rank of sergeant. Four years later, Pantoja was deployed to Djibouti, Africa, and spent a year doing Base Defense, a duty she compares to military police work. Her mission was to support Operation Enduring Freedom, or OEF, the official government name for the Global War on Terrorism campaign launched as a result of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Djibouti, a minuscule desert country located at the southern entrance of the Red Sea on the Horn of Africa, is strategically important in the region and has had a longstanding relationship with the French, making it a valuable asset for coalition forces. While there, Pantoja participated in French Desert Commando, a training program in conjunction with French forces that teaches the fundamentals of desert combat, survival and logistics while bridging language and cultural barriers between French and American troops.

Back home, Pantoja has served in hurricane missions delivering much-needed supplies to those affected. She was part of the more than 17,000 soldiers and Army civilians mobilized to aid with Hurricane Irma.

Both experiences bring her equal pride and joy.

“Over there [in Africa] I was serving my country, but over here, I am constantly serving my state.”

Being a woman in the military has come with its challenges. Pantoja has had to train harder and run faster than her male colleagues to gain their respect. But she does not hold a grudge: Quite the opposite, she believes it has helped her grow as a whole and has found her male counterparts to be nothing but supportive of her. She hopes to continue to flourish in her military career, and, on the civilian side, is working toward obtaining a college degree in political science from FIU.

Throughout her six years in service, bonds have been created, “Without a doubt. For me these people are more than colleagues or soldiers. This is your family outside of home because you get to do everything with them. You’re also serving alongside them during the tough times.”

— ALONA MARTINEZ

James Louis Weir, Navy, WWII

World War II veteran James Louis Weir, 93, recounts in vivid detail the day he steered the LCTA Gunfire Support Craft toward the beaches of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944.

“They put a platform in the middle of the deck and brought in three tanks: One went over the platform, another on the platform, and one in front. They did that because we had no firepower, so the middle tank did the firing as we went in.”

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James Weir’s record of Naval service.

The goal was to destroy the pillboxes, massive concrete barricades guarding enemy guns and soldiers, erected along the beach.

“They were built to protect the guns, which were pointed out into the English Channel.”

Weir is sparse with details, his story dotted with light chuckles that serve to soften the horrors a soldier who has lived through the largest naval invasion in history must have experienced.

Originally from Pennsylvania, he was drafted in 1943.

“I was part of the Amphibious Force. They had a transport out in Chesapeake Bay and we practiced picking up troops and unloading them on Virginia Beach,” he recalls about his early training days.

A 10-part documentary series from McClatchy Studios follows three U.S. veterans living with PTSD. Watch the full series at facebook.com/WarWithinShow/

When asked how he felt that fateful day, known to most as D-Day, he hesitates before answering.

“How would you feel?” he wonders out loud before that soft, comforting chuckle floods the air again. “I was 18. The invasion was on the 6th of June and my birthday was on the 11th, so I turned 19 there!” he recalls. The invasion led to the Allied liberation of Western Europe during World War II.

Weir’s job was to taxi the LCTA between the shore and the larger transports waiting out at sea, where he would collect more personnel. His crew was made up of 13 men, including one officer, all of which are captured in a diminutive black and white photograph he has with him. He points to the group of teenagers, and his finger gently taps on the one sporting an expansive grin.

“See, that’s me on the end.”

His vessel sustained damage from enemy fire, something Weir admits is impossible to forget.

“We got hit on the ramp and it made a hole about this big around,” Weir says, opening his arms wide. “But it was on the ramp and it was above the water line, so it didn’t bother us. The tanks could straddle it, it was right in the center.”

Weir left Europe and was given a 20-day leave before being sent to San Diego, where he would head off to fight the Japanese. Before that, he married his sweetheart, Laverne, whom he’d known since sixth grade.

“We were married 73 years. My wife passed away in February of 2017.”

The troops he was transporting to invade Japan turned into the first occupation troops when Japan surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945. By then, Weir had accumulated enough service points to be able to head back home, making it back just in time for Christmas.

It is obvious his family serves as his anchor. An affable young man who introduces himself as Jonathan enters the room to see how he is doing. Weir’s face lights up with pride watching his great grandson, who is close to the age he was when shipped off to war, exit and head toward the family room, where the rest of the brood is enjoying Sunday football. He beams while listing his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, like Jonathan, whom he calls his “greats.”

As a civilian, Weir was a commercial electrician, moving to South Florida in 1954.

“I came here by way of the Pacific. When I was out there I said, “if I ever get through this, I’m going to live in a warm climate. I’m not gonna be shoveling snow!”

— ALONA MARTINEZ

Juan Montoya, Army, Afghanistan

Juan Montoya moved to New York City from Peru at age 11, a boy whose family wanted a better life than they could have in Central America, who hoped their children would get an education and climb the opportunity ladder. Going to high school in Miami, Montoya didn’t quite know what he wanted out of life, so as graduation neared, he enlisted in the U.S. Army — to do “something different than just being home,” he said.

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Juan Montoya

The year was 2000 — the guided missile destroyer U.S.S. Cole had yet to be bombed in Yemen, and most Americans had never heard of al Qaeda. Montoya went to infantry training and was assigned to the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, New York, a seemingly quiet duty station where he planned to train, study and save money. Less than 18 months later, however, it all changed. And along with the Sept. 11 attacks, so did Montoya’s feelings about his adopted country.

“My mom was living in New York City. And my feeling was that someone had come into the place where I lived and attacked us. There was this sense of pride, and belonging to this country that made me want to fight for it,” Montoya said.

He didn’t wait long. Just days after 9/11, Montoya’s unit was deployed for security duties within the United States. A few months later, he was headed overseas — deploying to Uzbekistan and then Afghanistan, in support of Operation Anaconda, to help rid the Shah-i-Kot Valley of al Qaeda forces and the Taliban.

It would be the first of four combat deployments for Montoya, now a student at the University of Miami who lives in Coral Gables. Montoya said it was a mission he took pride in, fighting those who had supported the deadliest attack ever on U.S. soil.

“We went where we were needed. At the time, there wasn’t a lot of generals or brass overseeing us. We were engaging guys in the mountains, based on intelligence from the ground … the Taliban are phenomenal fighters … the fight was a lot more cerebral in terms of tactics,” he said.

Two years later, Montoya was in Iraq, facing a vastly different enemy in another country. He was married, had a little girl and was responsible for other troops. They were to be gone at least a year — a period in which he became a U.S. citizen.

“A lot of booby traps, a lot of IEDs. It wasn’t hand-to-hand combat or face to face, it was people hiding behind women and children. It was frustrating fighting an enemy you couldn’t put your hands on.”

He saw friends and comrades get injured and die. When he returned home, he had another child, but his marriage eventually crumbled. He returned to Afghanistan for one more tour. And then, after 14 years of serving in the U.S. military, he decided to leave, go to college and take his life in a different direction.

Now, however, on the cusp of graduating from Miami with a bachelor’s degree in history, he is feeling the pull again of the Army. He serves as president of the school’s veterans student organization and is planning to contact a recruiter about possibly returning to the service as an officer. He wants to continue his career, be an example for his daughters and serve in memory of friends he has lost, including Army Staff Sgt. Alex Jimenez, who was captured in an ambush in Iraq in 2007 and killed, and Army Sgt. Luis Serrano and Spec. Thor Peterson, who both committed suicide.

“These are guys that would do anything for you. They were like family,” he said.

He also wants to continue paying back a country he feels has given him “all kinds of opportunities.”

“[The United States] gave me and education, it gave me a job, it gave me a life. You have to fight for this place that has taken care of you. Maybe I lack the words to explain what patriotism is to me, or how proud I am to be an American. But I am.”

— PATRICIA KIME

Albert Ybanez, Navy, Vietnam

Albert Ybanez began his military career early, volunteering for the service while still in high school in 1962. He got a deferment to attend college and did not ship out to Vietnam for active duty until 1965.

“I didn’t think nothing of it.” he said. “I didn’t even know, at the time, I hadn’t even heard of Vietnam.”

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He served as part of the Communications Division in the Navy on the USS Preston DD795. Ybanez was a signalman, part of a team of four who used light to communicate messages via Morse code.

“There were Chinese trollers [on the Tonkin Gulf] jamming the radio signals and we couldn’t receive anything, so they had to rely on us to communicate by using light signals.”

His ship, known as a Destroyer, held 222 men during wartime (180 during peace time) and served as support for troops on the ground, using its five cannons to fire five-inch shells.

“There was a lot of fire, and we were under constant fire. I was next to Mount 2 [the second cannon] on the front of the ship. Every time they fired it felt like somebody slapped me on the side of the face. It was loud and powerful.”

Ybanez also spent part of his time ashore, sending light signals from land to the ships.

“They used to call us River Rats; that was our nickname.”

Part of his duties during the war included searching sampans, flat bottomed wooden boats used by the local fishermen.

“They would be infiltrated by the Vietcong, running arms and all that. Those little boats were so fast, they were three times faster than our PBRs,” Ybanez recalled, referring to the Patrol Boat Rivers used by the Navy on the Saigon River during the war.

The patrols were treacherous, leaving the men exposed to fire from hostiles hidden in the thick jungle on both sides of the river. Ybanez explains there was no time for fear: Soldiers were too busy trying to protect themselves.

“After it was over, that’s when it hits you. You realize, ‘Wow, man, I could have been killed with those bullets running all over the place.’”

But Ybanez is matter-of-fact about his service. “We went over there to do a job and we did it.”

Born in Texas and raised in Shreveport, Louisana, Ybanez came from a family of little means. He was one of nine siblings (four boys and five girls), and three of the four brothers served in Vietnam at the same time.

Returning home after two years and four months in service was difficult. Ybanez had a hard time readjusting to civilian life.

“When I got back home there was a lot of protest against the war. When I’d tell people I was in Vietnam, they’d shun away from me, like ‘Ahhhh, you got leprosy or something.’ That’s how I felt.”

He hopped around various jobs before being hired as a seaman at Tidewater Marine, a company that provides vessel services to the offshore petroleum industry. He made captain and stayed with the company for 25 years.

“I readjusted real well to civilian life because I was going out to sea. That helped a lot.”

Demons from the war followed Ybanez, though, felt most prominently when he retired in 2004. He found himself struggling with flashbacks and severe depression. His brother, who had also spent time in Vietnam, took him to a VA Hospital where Ybanez was diagnosed with PTSD. Ybanez, who has been living in Miami since 2010, underwent a special program at the Bruce W. Carter VA Medical Center that helped turn things around.

“I carried that weight all my life. When I went to this program, I felt like something was being taken out of me, like something was being released.”

Today he helps others struggling with similar issues, volunteering as a VA Ambassador. “We visit the people, we say good morning to them, just talk to them real nice, make them feel good.”

He meets with his fellow shipmates at annual reunions, the last one taking place in September in New Orleans. “We’re all old now,” he adds, with a gregarious laugh.

As a Catholic, Ybanez says, his faith has guided him through difficult times. “I rely on that a lot. I go to church, I read the Bible. That helps me a lot.”

— ALONA MARTINEZ

Alice Kerr, Army, Iraq

For retired Army Col. Alice Kerr, one of the most puzzling things about being a veteran in wartime America is figuring out how to respond when someone thanks her for her service.

“It’s one of the things that gives me pause ... How do I respond to that? … I’d like people to know that if you thank a veteran for their service and get a reaction you aren’t sure of, it’s probably because we don’t know what to say. ‘Your welcome’ seems so trite. But it’s absolutely 100 percent appreciated … we just have to get better at accepting the thanks,” she said.

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Army Col. Alice Kerr

Kerr, who lives in Miami, retired from the Army in January after 30 years, 23 of which were in the Army Reserves. Her combat service experience began and ended in the Middle East: As a lieutenant, she deployed to Saudi Arabia to serve as a Patriot missile maintenance officer in Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and nearly two decades later, she returned to the region as “mayor” of Camp Striker, overseeing operations at the base near Baghdad International Airport.

While she saw similarities between the two deployments, (“If there’s something the military does well, it is mobilize, so in terms of gearing up, it was pretty much the same.”), there also were significant differences, she said.

“Modern battlefields no longer have a rear echelon. In the first Gulf War, I was part of the rear echelon, providing support, and very proud of it. In Iraq, there was no rear, you know. You could be going down what you thought was a protected highway and get blown up at any minute. The nature of battle has changed,” Kerr said.

Being in charge of a base, rather than just a handful of soldiers, was a tremendous responsibility, she said. “I had a personal investment because my camp very much was the last time [U.S. troops] would be on friendly soil for a while. So I had to make sure the experience they had was good. I always wanted to leave them with a good memory.”

Kerr had wanted to join the military since before high school. She applied to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and was waitlisted, but she received an Army ROTC scholarship to Hofstra. She planned to stay on active duty for an entire career, but the Army had other plans: a post-Persian Gulf drawdown in the 1990s that threatened to derail her goals. Rather than wait to be released from service, however, she transferred to the reserves, where she spent the next several decades straddling military and civilian jobs.

In her civilian positions, Kerr has worked in information technology and project management at the University of Miami. Two years ago, when her university program was terminated, the dean of Miami’s law school suggested she consider applying to get a degree. She figured she had nothing to lose. Kerr took the LSATs, was accepted and now, at 53, is one of the oldest second-year students at Miami Law — the “broad on the bricks,” as she jokingly refers to herself, an “older wiser law student” among the younger crowd who hang out in the school’s brick-lined courtyard.

Her goal in earning her juris doctor is to become a veterans’ advocate and work policy issues. She says many veterans don’t understand their benefits or know how to ask for them. She wants to see this change. “They don’t like to ask for help, and I want to make it OK for them to ask,” she said.

Kerr particularly would like to see improved support for reservists coming home from combat tours and increased focus on health issues in the aging veterans population. With nearly 53,000 service members wounded in combat operations since 2001 — not counting accidents and training injuries — they will “need a level of care that hasn’t really been seen since World War II,” she said.

“I’d like to be a cog in that wheel to make sure we are equipped to deal with what’s coming down the road,” Kerr said. “Everybody knocks the [Veterans Health Administration], but once you get in, it’s pretty solid care. I want to help make sure things run more smoothly on the front end so more people have access to care.”

— PATRICIA KIME

This report was produced with special support from the United Ways in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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