Thursday, April 25, 2024

Ben Musquez: Vietnam veteran, sky soldier, smoke jumper


It’s been years since Ben Musquez jumped out of an airplane.

A bit over a decade ago Musquez was 82 years young on his last jump. He did so with a team of former soldiers all there for the same reason — to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade. It would be his 300th jump, and out of a C-47, no less. Musquez counted days not only as a “sky soldier” but as a “smoke jumper” as well.

At 93, Musquez, now of Granbury, resides with his bride of 71 years in their immaculate and beautifully decorated home. On the walls are photos of the family they are so proud of. Six children were born to the Musquez couple and five remain. Their family has grown to include many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Behind the Musquez abode is a small, tidy building that displays the memorabilia of Musquez’ memorable life. It’s an impressive collection. Both Musquez and his wife Maria remain active and can recall minute details of their amazing journey together.

Musquez’ mother died when he was just 18 months old. He was raised mostly by his grandparents and then aunts and uncles.

Musquez is old enough to remember boys from his community in Sabinal who didn’t return from World War II. He can still recall the wails of a woman who had lost a young man who was like a son to her. Of the 20-something young men drafted from the tiny south Texas community Musquez hails from, 11 did not return.

“There were many who hated the military. They hated the war. And I could understand that. But I felt differently. We need the military,” shares Musquez. Musquez decided he would enlist as soon as he was old enough and did so in 1949 at the age of 17.

“When I signed up, I told everyone right then I was going to be career military.” Musquez served for almost 30 years through the Korean Conflict and two tours in Vietnam.

He was first assigned to AA Artillery at Fort Bliss. The unit was ready to deploy to Korea when the mission was cancelled.

Musquez and some buddies attended a matinee in town one afternoon. They heard the roar of a low flying plane. On the plane’s second run, a paratrooper jumped onto the parade field in front of them.

“Wow! So right after that I said, ‘Man, there it is. I’ve got to go Airborne!’”

A buddy of Musquez’ decided to go Airborne as well. Musquez’ recommendation helped his friend acquire a spot. They stayed in touch all these years until his friend died of COVID.

When he got his orders, Musquez was assigned to the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. “The 82nd Airborne went on maneuvers once a year for three months. I went on a maneuver and when I came back, I said, ‘I’m gonna go home and ask that girl (to marry me).’ And so I went home to San Antonio.”

The proposal was direct. Musquez and Maria had been dating for five years. She waited for him as he was in training and serving. “Are you going to marry me or not? Yes? Well why didn’t you tell me a long time ago?” he asked her.

Maria Musquez describes their beautiful church wedding and said she insisted that her bridesmaids wear whatever dress they like. “I had been a bridesmaid so many times, and every time we were in a wedding we had to get a new dress. ‘Just wear one you have, I said.’” This flexibility and humility would serve her well as a military wife.

During their time stationed at Fort Bragg the Musquezes saw a movie that would change their course.

“They showed a movie called ‘Red Skies of Montana’ with Richard Widmark and I saw that movie and I said, ‘Oh boy! I just have to do that. Here I was for a miliary career. But jumping out into the wilderness to put out a fire . . . I told my wife, ‘You know what, I love the military but I have been thinking I should try some civilian life,’” Musquez said.

Maria Musquez kept the home fires burning in support of Musquez whether in the military or out. To make ends meet, she stretched the dollar with frugal shopping and creative cooking,  and she made many of the childrens’ clothes. “I had to work at making the dollar go farther. I was very, very busy,” Maria Musquez says with a smile. The Musquezes both express what blessings their children have been.

While in the Airborne, Musquez — already a corporal — volunteered to cut the hair of the soldiers when no one else would. This skill came in handy during years out of the service, when Musquez would use this skill to get his barbers license. Cutting hair created an additional income stream.

“When I got out, I came from North Carolina to San Antonio. I went to barber college to have something to do right away. And it paid off. When I moved to California all I had to do was get my license. Then I ended up in Montana as a smoke jumper.”

“When I started in the California firefighting force, the pay was $1.10 an hour. Then when I got to smoke jumper, I got a raise to $1.75 an hour.”

Once during training he became tangled in the parachute during a jump. He has the photo to prove it. He still landed on his feet on that jump.

Musquez remained in the reserves during his time as a smoke jumper. He decided to return to active duty military knowing he would have to start at the bottom again as a buck private. Musquez was not concerned as he planned to apply the same enthusiasm and hard work ethic he always had.

“I was soon selected for drill sergeant duty and later would become senior drill sargeant at Fort Polk, Louisiana. We were getting feedback from Vietnam that the trainees from Fort Polk were some of the best.”

Knowing their lives depended on their training, Musquez took a special interest in making sure the young soldiers were well prepared.

Musquez volunteered to go to Vietnam. He told his wife if he could save even one life it would be worth it. At the time, the Musquezes were expecting their fifth child.

“Initially they put the word out ‘No drill sergeants in combat zones’ because they were losing too many of them,” Musquez said.

When he deployed to Vietnam, Musquez had just begun recovery from hernia surgery. While he was out in the jungle, he picked a young sapling tree which would be his constant companion and literal support as he transversed the landscape. He still has the sapling which became his walking stick.

There are a million stories to tell, says Musquez, and his recall is no less than incredible. He can recall names, places, dates and conversations. This gift will no doubt be enjoyed at the next reunion of his brothers in arms which takes place in the metroplex this year as the C-company 2/1 of the 196th gathers to reminisce.

He ran into more than one old friend while in Vietnam, as well as peers and those he had trained — even his own brother. One friend promised to “take care of him,” keeping him out of harms way.

“I didn’t volunteer to come here and be taken care of,” was Musquez’ reply.

Musquez was even recognized out of uniform. Once when clearing an area for a chopper to land, Musquez stripped down to his shorts as he cut away the thick growth. As the chopper lowered he realized the pilot was shouting his name. The pilot was a former trainee — Musquez had been his senior drill instructor.

During his deployment to Vietnam, Musquez received word that another baby girl had joined his family. That baby went on to join the military and serve her own combat tour overseas. Patriotism runs deep among the Musquez family, and many from each generation serve.

“I operated as a platoon sergeant from the top of the Delta in the south to the central highlands to the DMZ. I’m proud to say that I accomplished all my assignments without losing a single soldier on my watch,” Musquez said.