The date he was injured—and the date he truly began living.
Bobby Barrera had been in Vietnam for six weeks when a massive explosion rocked his vehicle, causing severe burns over 40% of his body and leaving him without a right hand or left arm.
The date—Sept. 16, 1969—is forever etched into his memory. But unlike some veterans who have lived through traumatic war injuries, he doesn’t call it his “Alive Day.” Instead, Barrera and his fellow Marines came up with a more humorous way to remember the event.
“We called it ‘Crispy Critter Day,’” said Barrera, a DAV past national commander. “It also happened on Mexican Independence Day, so I joke every year the entire country celebrates when we got burned to a crisp.”
His humor today belies the severity of the attack 50 years ago.
Barrera’s convoy had crossed into a rice paddy when his armored personnel carrier was struck by a 500-pound bomb rigged as a land mine. The attack intensified when the vehicle’s fuel caught fire.
Barrera, who always wanted to be a Marine, had expected to be sent to Vietnam. But after regaining consciousness following the blast, with his flak jacket ablaze, he doubted what he had gotten himself into.
“I remember thinking, what have I done?” he said. “Why am I over here way on the other side of the world? Why am I here?”
After being rescued from the battlefield, he was transported to the burn center at Fort Sam Houston, a few hours from his hometown of Del Rio, Texas. The days that followed, he said, were some of the darkest of his life. So dark, he contemplated suicide.
“I was in intensive care, I had already lost my left arm and right hand, and I was in lots of pain,” said Barrera. “That’s when I decided I didn’t want to continue living.”
He recalls making a single request when his father came to visit—to shoot him.
“I’m glad he didn’t,” he added. “I would never follow through with suicide, because of my relationship with God, but it’s scary to think about it.”
According to Barrera, the physical recovery was easy, compared to learning to live as a double amputee. The biggest struggle, though, was finding a reason to live.
“The first four years after coming home were the most difficult because I had no purpose; I had no desire to accomplish anything,” said Barrera. “I kept telling myself I couldn’t.”
The turning point, he said, was on April 27, 1974, the day he married his wife, Maricelia.
“My real ‘Alive Day’ is when I married her,” he recalled. “That’s when I started doing things I never thought I could do.”
At first, Maricelia assisted with basic tasks, like helping him shower and get dressed in the morning.
“As we grew closer together, I realized that Bobby was reluctant about admitting that he had goals,” said Maricelia, who not only encouraged Barrera to go back to school but also played a crucial role in his success.
“She did everything from holding a piece of paper while I wrote to going with me to the library to do research,” said Barrera. “When I received my degree from St. Mary’s, I wrote in her name underneath mine because she had worked just as hard as I had.”
She also helped him overcome mental struggles he was silently battling. Barrera’s invisible wounds of war began showing up in 2014, after he moved to San Antonio. He was no longer working as a counselor, was experiencing daily chronic pain, and post-traumatic stress disorder took root.
Maricelia quickly recognized that Bobby needed help, but he initially resisted.
“It was most difficult because he saw getting help for mental health issues as a sign of weakness,” she said. “He couldn’t admit to himself that he needed help.”
Despite a career helping veterans cope with their experiences of war, the stigma surrounding his mental health was impenetrable. “Even though I told people I was counseling that it was alright to get help, I didn’t think it was for me,” said Barrera.
As his pain worsened, suicide again began to creep into his thoughts. That’s when Maricelia convinced him to get the help he needed.
“She told me I wasn’t any lesser of a man because I needed help,” said Barrera. “And she was right.”
Today, Barrera continues to share his story and advocate for those critically injured in war. He’s an example of what disabled veterans can achieve with the right support system, no matter how severe their wounds. Both he and Maricelia continue to encourage veterans from all eras to seek the care they need and are entitled to receive, and they stress doing so is not a failure or personal flaw.
“Seeking help with mental health is not a sign of weakness; rather, it shows how strong you are,” added Maricelia. “It shows how much love you have for your family. It shows how much love you have for your life.
“If you don’t believe it,” she said, “you can always ask Bobby.”