OKEECHOBEE — Veteran Craig Montesi Sr. was born in Connecticut where his dad was in the restaurant business. The family visited Florida every year in the winter for several months. They had extended family in Miami and enjoyed spending time with them. When his dad got older, he developed a heart condition, and his doctor recommended he move to a warmer climate. In the early ’60s, they moved to Miami.
Montesi was drafted into the Army while still in tenth grade and was sent to basic training at Fort Gordon, Ga. His AIT (advanced individual training) was done there as well, jungle warfare. While in training, two of the men training with him died. “It was pretty rough. We were 17 miles off the main post and lived in Quonset huts. We already knew we were going to Vietnam. This training was specifically for Vietnam,” said Montesi. The reason he ended up there was during basic, he qualified expert with the M-60 machine gun and it automatically put him into the combat unit. “We knew we were going to Vietnam, so I just learned the best I could learn to survive.”
After training but before he left for Vietnam, Montesi got a Dear John letter from his high school girlfriend. “I got a tattoo on my arm after that, a broken heart.”
Arriving in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, Montesi was what is called air mobile and was a machine gunner. “I was one of those guys you see jumping out of a helicopter with a rifle,” he said.
When he first arrived he was sent to the DMZ (demilitarized zone) but was only there for about 30 days. After that, he was flown down to Saigon for the Tet Offensive.
The Tet Holiday is one of the most important celebrated in Vietnam and in previous years, a truce between North and South Vietnam was upheld. However, in 1968, North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap chose that day to mount numerous surprise attacks on the South.
“We did two to three combat assaults a day. When intelligence had communications letting them know where the enemy was, we would fly in with guns blazing. We were shot at as we jumped. I lost a lot of buddies.”
He was put in the 7th Cavalry “C” Company while he was over there. This was Col. George Custer’s outfit. “We had an image to uphold and were the first ones in every assault.”
The weather in Vietnam was similar to that of Florida, he said. The exception was monsoon season when it rained for 28 straight days. “We didn’t have nothing but a backpack and our poncho. You learn to make the best of a bad situation. I really did thank God for the advanced training I got in Fort Gordon, Ga. It helped me survive.” One of Montesi’s closest friends, Paul R. Robinson, another machine gunner, had been in Vietnam for five years. “He was a war monger,” said Montesi. “I figured if he survived, I could survive.”
Although he was wounded three times in Vietnam, Montesi was right. He survived.
When it was time for Montesi to leave Vietnam, the airport was bombed, and he ended up staying an extra day while waiting for it to be repaired.
When he left Vietnam, he only had three months left. He could have finished up that time in Vietnam but did not want to push his luck, so he ended up at Fort Riley, Kansas. He didn’t have a job there, because his MOS was infantry combat. They asked him what he would like to do, and then he was put in the motor pool. “Really, I just hung out, killing time.”
Montesi served two years active duty and was classified as 100% disabled after his tour in Vietnam.
Montesi was diagnosed with PTSD, but said he is a survivor. “When you get back, you kind of just want to forget about it. I had a lot of nightmares about it. You just have to get past it.” Montesi feels strongly that veterans should help each other. He said the suicide rate for veterans is unbelievable. He started many support groups over the years to try to prevent this. “I try to explain to them that this is not the way out.”
Although he was not given the chance to finish high school before he was drafted, Montesi was awarded a high school diploma by the Army. It was sent to him 20 years after his discharge.
Montesi spent many years racing cars, and now his son races as well. “It was a release for me,” he said. “When you’re in a race car, you don’t think about the things that happened over there.” He was very successful at racing and raced all over the country. “I worked with some of the best. I got to work with Mr. Earnhardt a little bit, Tony Stewart and all them. I won probably about 200 races. It was my release. I believe the reason I was so good was I wasn’t afraid of death. I dodged that bullet many times.” Montesi was the first inductee in the Clewiston Speedway Hall of Fame. At one point, the Montesi family owned the Motorcross Speedway.
Now, Montesi is battling bone cancer, the result of Agent Orange. He spends a lot of time at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. “There is no cure for it,” he said. “They can just try to slow it down.” Montesi is no stranger to dealing with cancer. His wife Marcia passed away after her own battle with it about ten years ago. The Montesis had three children, two girls and one boy, but one daughter preceded them in death. The second daughter lives in Tampa and helps her father with his cancer treatments. His son lives in Okeechobee and runs the family business, AAA Radiators & Air Conditioning, Inc.