Those that doubt freedom breeds greatness, or believe America is no better than any other country, haven’t met Johann Camarena. His masterful way of weaving a verbal tapestry of his life story and what it means to be a true American hero is nothing short of an experience of a lifetime.
Camarena has been there and done that, had it all and lost it and then built it all back up again, all without asking for a handout or any praise. His service in Vietnam has left him dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder that both haunts and drives him.
“Sometimes when something strikes a nerve, and I argue with my wife, I look into her eyes and see the eyes of the first man I ever killed,” Camarena said. “I was so close to him that I looked him in the eyes as I pleaded for him to stop, but he didn’t understand English and I didn’t know any Vietnamese, so I pulled the trigger … When that all comes back to me, I have to step away and take a break. I just know that’s what I have to deal with.”
That same experience can serve as a force for good as well.
“You have to take the bad with the good,” Camarena said. “I deal with it all by keeping busy. I’ve lost everything I had so many times I can’t remember it all, but that’s the beauty of this country.”
Camarena served as a medic in Vietnam, came home to graduate college, played professional football and had a beautiful fiancée. A horrific car accident left him in a coma for five months and took his right eye while causing some physical disfigurements. True to his unselfish nature, he let his fiancée go.
“She was young and beautiful and I was injured and disfigured,” Camarena said. “So I let her loose; I didn’t want to hold her back.”
The dimly lit auditorium at American Fork High School may as well have been a Broadway stage for Camarena. His story does not require a tux or a ball gown, an expensive ticket or a red carpet entrance. His story is the American experience.
“Humility is so important,” Camarena said. “Now that I work with young kids in a drug rehab program, I have to just live the principles I know are true. If I do that, they follow me and I can be a leader for them. I use so many quotes from Thomas Jefferson about George Washington — we need to live more like he did.”
It doesn’t matter that he played football with John Elway’s father Jack, or that his old teammate Dave Baldwin is the offensive coordinator at Utah State. His work consulting on movies and television shows like “Saving Private Ryan” and “Band of Brothers” may be interesting, but they aren’t what define him.
Johann Anton Camarena is a half-German, part-Mexican and Spanish all-American hero. His ancestors may have come from Bavaria, Spain and Mexico, but his heart is 100 percent American. The love for his country is what brings him out to vote, not revenge.
“My claims to the VA (Veterans Affairs) have been rejected for the past three years,” Camarena said. “They tell me that my PTSD was not related to my service, so I have to find ways to deal with it on my own. This president says he is fighting for us but he’s turned me away. I fought in Vietnam to protect the rights for everyone to vote and make changes when you feel they aren’t acting in your interest. I don’t care who you vote for, just as long as you take advantage of the rights that so many people have fought for. That’s all the thanks we want.”