IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Latino Marine who was last to leave Vietnam: Afghanistan triggers memories

Marine Sgt. Juan José Valdez remembers the desperate Vietnamese parents. "They would give us their children and say, 'Please take my children at least,'" he recalled.

Juan José Valdez, a Marine Corps veteran, remembers Vietnam when he hears the news about the United States' chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. There he was in April 1975, on the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, wondering if he and his companions had been forgotten during the evacuation.

“The North Vietnamese were already coming in the tanks, and we stayed down so they wouldn’t look at us,” Valdez said in an interview with Noticias Telemundo, remembering the events more than 45 years later — as the world's most powerful country is once again forced to improvise its withdrawal after a prolonged conflict.

Valdez said his orders were clear. He was a Marine guard and had to protect the troops that remained in the embassy: 10 Marines who were stationed with him on the roof of the building, waiting to be rescued. They would be the last to leave Saigon.

Juan Jose Valdez.
Juan Jose Valdez.Telemundo

“You have to take care of your people, your troops, first, and if you stay there, if you stay, they kill you, they kill you, but you are going to be the last,” Valdez recalled.

But Valdez and his men were not abandoned.

On the morning of April 30, 1975, the U.S. rescue helicopter appeared as a black dot on the horizon. When it landed on the roof of the embassy, ​​Valdez waited to board until the end. But while trying to climb he stumbled — and the helicopter began to rise without him. A colleague realized that one of the group was missing, and when they went down the ramp, they saw him holding onto it. They all helped him up.

 “I was the last” to set foot in Vietnam, the Latino soldier recalled.

'They gave us the children'

In his home in California, Valdez shows a photo in which he is seen with his companions aboard the helicopter, safe, leaving behind more than 10 years of U.S. intervention in the Southeast Asian nation.

The anguish and despair being experienced today in Afghanistan amid a chaotic withdrawal brings Valdez memories of his last days in Saigon.

“They would tell the children, ‘Please, at least take my children out. I’ll stay, but take my little girl now,’” he remembers being told by parents desperate to flee.

“We spent so much money, so many weapons and so many Marine and Army deaths, and for what, for what?” Valdez asked. He said he believes it was a mistake to prolong the missions in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

More than 58,000 American soldiers died in Vietnam, and around 2,500 have died in Afghanistan. As a result of those wars, about 1 million Vietnamese and about  66,000 Afghan military and police have died.

The U.S. has evacuated more than 28,000 people since Kabul fell to the Taliban on Aug. 15. President Joe Biden intends to stick to the Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. Taliban leaders have warned there will be repercussions if U.S. troops do not leave the country by then.

A version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.

Follow NBC Latino on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.