Healing from the wounds of combat has been a lifelong journey for Korean War veteran Jess Rivera.
The Fresno resident was haunted by years of nightmares when he returned to the United States after his 18-month tour of duty as a Marine.
Rivera, who was awarded two Purple Hearts for his service from 1950 to 1952, recalled witnessing the death of one of his squad members during the fall of 1950 as they fought in eastern Korea.
“You had be running to get in position and follow the sergeant,” he said. “We got into position there and had to dig a foxhole.
“The Koreans were shooting at us,” Rivera said. “I put a flannel over my face and look over – I see a dead Marine a few yards from me.”
Rivera, 88, was born in Fairfield, but has spent the majority of his life in the central San Joaquin Valley and is now a resident of the Veterans Home of California in Fresno.
“My dad was a farm laborer,” said Rivera. “He lived from crop to crop, and he had to be there, in Fairfield, when I was born.
“He went all over the Valley and went from crop to crop where there was work,” later settling in the small Fresno County community of Del Rey, Rivera said.
Rivera joined the Marine Corps reserves and was called to active duty in July 1950 as a 22-year-old. He trained that summer at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, and wound up spending two winters in Korea.
The Koreans were shooting at us. I put a flannel over my face and look over – I see a dead Marine a few yards from me.
Jess Rivera, Marine and Korean War veteran
The constant sound of combat on the front lines would follow him for the remainder of his life. “I have (post-traumatic stress disorder) from all the noise, you know, artillery and mortars – it gets to you,” Rivera said. “After I came back, I had ears ringing.”
Rivera and his platoon surrounded their base with barbed wire and flares, with guards on duty in case any enemy troops arrived. When the Korean and Chinese troops attacked, Rivera said, the enemy troops blew on loud trumpets.
“So we knew they were coming,” he said. “They started shooting at us and throwing hand grenades; we started firing and calling artillery, mortars, everything.
“We killed a lot of them because we were ready for them,” Rivera said. “They never picked up the dead – they were just lying there.
“After two weeks, our bulldozers came and pushed them away because it started smelling,” Rivera said.
The first of Rivera’s Purple Hearts came from a superficial shrapnel wound to his thigh.
“It stung like hell, and there was no medical treatment, but they gave me a Purple Heart for that,” he said. “After that, we kept fighting.”
Later in his enlistment, Rivera received a concussion after a shell burst near him.
“I was unconscious, and they took me to a tent hospital,” he said. “There were already about 20 men there, so they had to make room for me, another serious patient.”
Sent back to the front lines after several weeks, Rivera had trouble remembering names and following orders. His officer put him on kitchen duty for a month, then Rivera was honorably discharged in February 1952.
Rivera returned home with frostbitten toes and was told to have them removed.
“I said, ‘I don’t want to have surgery,’ ” Rivera remembered. “ ‘I’ll see how far I can go.’ ”
Rivera began running, an activity he began as a youth. “It got my heart pumping, and blood circulates through your body,” Rivera said, attributing his exercise to helping heal his frostbitten toes.
Rivera found comfort in running and for years ran several miles a day and regularly competed in road races.
After returning to the United States, Rivera stayed with his parents for several years to recuperate and married Helen Calderon of Clovis in 1955.
“I came back and I was all messed up,” Rivera said. “Thank God I had good parents that supported me, loved me, took care of me.”
Rivera went on to work at the county hospital in Fresno as a technician before retiring.
Of his wartime experiences: “I didn’t want to talk about it for years, let me tell you,” Rivera said. “Then I had nightmares coming back, even after I got married – 10 years after I got married, I still had nightmares.
“I’d wake up in the morning, my heart pounding,” he said. “Each morning, I’d wake up and thank God I was still alive.”
Rivera consulted with a doctor about his nightmares.
“The doctor told me, ‘You’re still young; have fun, it’ll go away,’ ” Rivera said. “But it didn’t.”
Back then, there was so such thing as post-traumatic stress syndrome. You were expected to come back to the United States, pick up where you left off with your life, and nobody thought about not only the physical but the emotional repercussions of what you just went through.
Julie Cusator, spokeswoman for the Veterans Home of California – Fresno
It wasn’t until 1996 that Rivera learned about benefits available to him and began to get counseling.
Linda Tully, the youngest of Rivera’s three children, was unaware of many of the details of her father’s wartime experience until decades later.
“I didn’t even know about this, that all this happened to him, until he got older,” Tully said. “Then he told us he got two Purple Hearts. It was like, ‘What? He got two Purple Hearts?’ ”
Julie Cusator, a spokeswoman for the Fresno veterans home, said Rivera’s response to his mental trauma was a common reaction in serviceman of the time.
“Back then, there was no such thing as post-traumatic stress syndrome,” Cusator said. “You were expected to come back to the United States, pick up where you left off with your life, and nobody thought about not only the physical but the emotional repercussions of what you just went through.”
In November 2013, Rivera’s wife died after a battle with stomach cancer. He moved to the veterans home last July.
About a year after Helen’s death, Rivera underwent hip replacement surgery – putting a stop to his running. Rivera was determined to progress from a wheelchair to a walker and then a cane. Spending an hour a day at the gym to rehabilitate, Rivera rid himself of the cane within six months.
The horrors of war have lingered, however, as Rivera continues in counseling.
Even so, reflecting on 64 years of his life after he left the front lines, Rivera said, “I’ve been lucky – God has helped me, let me tell you.”