This Veterans Day, odds are good you’ll find Vince Orduña puttering in the backyard of his modest Plattsmouth home.
If he’s not chopping away at a chunk of wood or sprinkling feed for the chickens, he’ll probably be kicking back in a lounge chair next to a bubbling koi pond he built himself, inside a screened patio, where his seven cats roam free.
He calls it his “serenity garden.” He loves the life he and his wife, Marcella, have built here.
“Sometimes there’s tears rolling down my cheeks,” said Orduña, 71. “Gratitude is an attitude.”
His gratitude and inner peace are hard-won, following battles in Vietnam as an Army helicopter pilot, battles against racism during a long career in the military, law enforcement and the VA, and battles with post-traumatic stress disorder and cancer linked to Agent Orange.
Orduña’s struggles sometimes led to conflict with his high-achieving North Omaha family, and through four marriages that produced six children.
And it culminated in an emotional 2017 honor flight to Washington, D.C., with more than 650 other Vietnam veterans.
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, he confronted the memories of soldiers he knew who died fighting in Southeast Asia, and forgave himself for surviving while they didn’t.
The memory still moves him to tears.
“It broke me down as I remembered what I have tried to forget,” he wrote in a thank-you note to Bill and Evonne Williams, the Omaha couple who organized the honor flight. “My new brothers picked me up. I knew it takes a real man to shed tears for fallen comrades.”
This newfound serenity is not something you would have expected from Vince Orduña, if you knew him back in the day.
Not back in the late 1960s, when he starred in football and track at Omaha Central — dancing in the footsteps of his older brother, Joe Orduña, a Nebraska Cornhuskers star.
Certainly not when he was skimming the treetops of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta in 1970-71, at the controls of an Army OH-6A Cayuse helicopter. He was shot down four times, and survived.
In those days, if someone made a racist remark or treated him unfairly, Orduña set them straight.
Like the time in Army flight school, when he smashed a stack of wooden shelves with his fist in response to one too many racial jabs by a White roommate from the South.
“I grew up fighting,” Orduña said. “But there comes a time in every man’s life when you have to say, ‘Enough is enough.’”
Orduña was the third of six children of the Rev. John Orduña and his wife, Doris, the leaders of the Friends of Christ Evangelical Church in North Omaha.
Vince said teachers compared him with his oldest brother, John Jr., in academics, and his second-oldest, Joe, in athletics. Two younger sisters, Carmen and Juanita, followed, and then the youngest brother, Paul.
He broke records in the hurdles and played running back on Central’s football team, graduating in 1968. His exploits prompted Coach Bob Devaney to offer him a football scholarship at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln — a team on the cusp of greatness, with Joe Orduña in its offensive backfield. Joe led the team in rushing in its first national championship year, 1970, and played several years in the NFL.
Could Vince Orduña have achieved that kind of success? He’ll never know; he chose a different path, following a different family tradition.
Vince’s Mexican grandfather fought alongside the revolutionary Pancho Villa in the early 20th century . His father and uncles had fought in World War II. One uncle, Ralph Orduña, had flown with the storied Tuskegee Airmen, a pioneering squadron of Black fighter pilots.
Vince had been turned off by the antiwar protests roiling college campuses, and thrilled by the Army helicopters he saw on the evening news. Plus, he was newly married to his high school sweetheart, Johnice, and would soon have a baby on the way. He enlisted in the spring of 1969.
By early 1970, he was in Vietnam, piloting an OH-6 scout helicopter in the 1st Air Cavalry Division as part of a “hunter-killer” team, paired with a monster Cobra gunship. His speedy little “Loach,” lighter than a VW Beetle, would fly low over the jungle to draw enemy gunfire.
Yes, this was dangerous work. Life expectancy was short — only 45 days, on average, Orduña said. He flew for 120 days, and was shot down four times.
He can tell you what it’s like to kill someone. But Orduña prefers to tell a story of saving lives.
Like the time he returned from a mission with unused ammunition. So he flew to a designed “free-fire zone,” with orders to empty his weapons.
Usually he just fired away. But this time he saw movement on the ground.
“A voice inside me said, ‘Don’t shoot.’” Orduña said.
“It turned out they were kids, in the wrong area, at the wrong time. How many other times did I listen to the voice on the other end of the radio and just open fire?”
Another time, he spent his off-duty hours for 10 days searching for the wreckage of a helicopter that had crashed in a river, leaving three crewmen missing. The Army had given up.
Orduña found the wreckage, saving three families the hellish limbo of “missing in action.”
His own family in Omaha was on edge while he was in Vietnam.
“I was physically sick the entire time he was gone,” said Juanita, his youngest sister, who was 13 when he left.
Carmen, a year younger than Vince, had been so close to him that people thought of them as twins. She had covered up for him when he eloped with Johnice, and then joined the Army.
But she, too, feared for his safety — and with good reason.
“It was hard to imagine my brother being in a war where people were being blown up, shot at, catching diseases, and (getting) killed,” she said in an email. “I was afraid that he wasn’t going to make it back.”
He did come home to Nebraska in 1971, to wait for his next assignment.
He also had a decision to make: Devaney and his then-offensive coordinator, Tom Osborne, had said they would hold his scholarship for two years. The team was coming off of its first-ever national championship. They looked like a good bet to win another behind quarterback Jerry Tagge, who had been Vince’s freshman teammate.
But Orduña let go of the golden ring.
Vietnam had been hell, but he still loved flying. He had a wife and two children to support. He also had a chance for a tour in Germany, which excited Johnice.
So Orduña stuck with the Army, for what he says were two enjoyable years in Europe, plus one in Texas. Then he got out, and took a job as a Texas state trooper.
But Vietnam stayed with him. It tormented his sleep, made him edgy and short-tempered. At least once, he tried to kill himself. He ended up in a VA psychiatric ward.
Johnice, he said, stuck with him for 15 years before they split up.
“Vietnam changed me so much,” he said. “She couldn’t take it.”
He left the Texas State Patrol after 10 years, cycling through jobs with a trucking company, as a sheriff’s deputy in Washington state, as a garbage collector in Seattle. And he cycled through two more marriages.
After the second one broke up, in the late 1990s, Orduña came home to Nebraska, and his family.
“I needed a change of scenery,” he said.
Juanita said Vince had changed “in ways that can’t necessarily be put in words.” He seemed to have built a protective shell around himself.
Now the healing could finally begin.
He got a job at the Omaha VA hospital, with the hospital police force, and later he worked in the records department. He also got therapy for his PTSD.
One night on security duty, Orduña escorted a nurse to her car. Her name was Marcella, and he ventured that her husband was a lucky man.
She said she wasn’t married. That led to a date, and then another. Now they’ve been together for more than 20 years. They’ve lived on the quiet street in Plattsmouth for 11.
In 2017, his younger brother, Paul — who became a naval officer and, later, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent — signed him up for the Vietnam veterans flight of honor.
Orduña said he had long resisted visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, which was dedicated in 1982. He had a spooky fear that he would see his name on it, and then disappear.
That’s not what happened, of course. But he saw many names he knew.
“They all represent someone’s son, someone’s brother,” he said. “Now they’re just a name etched in stone.”
Orduña pondered the unanswerable question asked by so many veterans at the Wall: “Why did I come home, and they didn’t?”
“It made me say, ‘As long as I’m breathing, I want to be the best version of who I am — for those who don’t get to be that person,’ ” Orduña said.
And the tears flowed.
They flowed again when the three planeloads of veterans arrived home, at the Lincoln Airport, and were greeted by cheering crowds yelling, “Welcome home, Vietnam vets! We love you, and the USA!”
Vince’s family was there, too, jumping up and down and waving a flag. Doris, who is now 95, and John Jr. and Paul and Juanita.
And of course, Marcella.
“This homecoming was for her, as well,” Orduña later wrote. “Her mission of saving me is over, and a new one of just loving and enjoying me — spending the rest of our lives together — has begun.”
Still his heart is light.
“Life is precious,” he said. “If you’ve ever taken a life, you know that.”