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Retired U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Ismael Gonzalez-Ramos, a former infantry unit leader and decorated combat veteran, holds his Bronze Star medal with a combat action “V” device, an award for valor and heroism in combat, at his home in Jacksonville, North Carolina, Nov. 20, 2023. 92-year-old Gonzales-Ramos was drafted from Cidra, Puerto Rico in 1951 and served in the Korean War and Vietnam War during his 20 years of honorable service in the Marine Corps. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Loriann Dauscher)

Photo by Lance Cpl. Loriann Dauscher

Never Retired: The Unwavering Heart of a Korean and Vietnam War Veteran

29 Feb 2024 | Lance Cpl. Loriann Dauscher Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune

The 92-year-old Jacksonville, North Carolina resident laid his head down on his pillow as thoughts roamed through his head, as they had for over 50 years.

“How… I went through all that misery and never got hit,” he thought to himself as his eyes gradually started to close.

“Well, somebody got to do it,” declared retired U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Ismael Gonzalez-Ramos, a former infantry unit leader and decorated combat veteran. “If you don’t do it, someone is gonna put those kids out and do it for you.”

Not many people can say they personally know someone who’s fought in war three times. To say you have been through three whole tours in two different wars is a rare feat. His dedication to his patriotic and selfless values is something only a natural leader would feel strongly enough about to willingly put themselves through numerous battles and 20 years of service.

Ramos is a man of average height and build with a calm demeanor, warm smile, kind eyes and neat white facial hair. His short white sideburns sit underneath a favorite hat he frequently wears with Marine Corps insignia and words of veteran pride, “never retired.” His old age hasn’t changed his attitude on life. He continues to advise others to stay healthy and exercise. His motto, according to his daughter, is to always be positive and don't let things bother you.

“That’s the way it is,” Ramos said calmly. The wind passes by, life goes on, he says. “Serving, it makes you feel good. You get to be proud of something for yourself.”


One day in 1951, Ramos received a letter in the mail to his home in Puerto Rico. The letter contained the news that he was to be drafted into the armed forces to fight. Some men may have been concerned or unwilling to leave, with accounts of citizens going so far as to injure themselves to avoid having to experience combat. Ramos, on the other hand, felt honored and happy to serve his country. He chose to put himself in the boots of the Marine Corps to carry out his service, he said.

“You need the Marines to fight a war? The Marine Corps was always ahead of the call,” said Ramos. “The Marine Corps is a fighting unit no matter where we would be on the globe.”


And around the globe he was sent. During his time on active duty, he spent time in Hawaii, California, North and South Carolina, Vietnam, South Korea, Japan and Naples, Italy, where he met his wife.

The Marine Corps instilled tangible and intangible benefits and values in Ramos.

He said he believes a theme in his contribution to the battles he fought was "doing the right thing".

"Don’t do to others as you don’t do for you. Always help your fellow man. You happen to be the person they need to help, and you can help, then help them. I've always been that way. It’s just a fact of life, you help others, and the mighty Lord will protect and guide you. Life goes on," he said, acceptance and a positive tone ringing through his words.

Ramos learned true compassion and perseverance through the hard truths that intrinsically came with the responsibility of being a Marine infantry unit leader.

"As a staff non-commissioned officer, you're doing more than your capacity sometimes. You train to take the next job. Commander, you know. Let’s say for instance, one of my officers gets shot somewhere, then it is my duty to go on with it and accomplish the mission regardless," he said.

Ramos believes that working hard and taking responsibility are important for leaders.

"When you start doing a job, it's not a job, but it’s something you must do. Why should I ask you to do it when I could do it myself? Because you're passionate about it. If you're gonna do it, do it right. You don’t want someone else to deal with your mess. You'll be happy and I'll be happy,” he said.

In addition to his memories of the tough responsibilities that come with being a Marine, Ramos has many memories of the experiences and laughs he shared with friends. He can fondly picture these moments as if they were yesterday.

“Getting on the airplane to depart, settling down after reaching a certain altitude,” he described. “I liked sitting in the back of the aircraft wing, flying over Naples. I enjoyed it, my life. Serving [in the Marine Corps], it’s something you never forget,” he says.

"I can feel a pat on the back still and hear, 'Ramos? Where you been all this doggone time?’" Ramos laughed.

When asked about contacting his old friends he said, "Well... sometimes, it becomes memories, and you never forget those. Remains in your mind. I prayed for them when they go to the place where they are, protected by the Lord. Sometimes you lose your buddies and you don’t get to see them again. How they say, 'life goes on,'" he hummed as his tone lowered subtly.

Though Ramos enjoyed going around the world back then, today he prefers where his family and home is. He said he is not interested in traveling back to Korea or Vietnam and that these places will remain the same for him.

Ramos' family is still close to this day.

"Leaving them behind, you don’t know when you’re going to see them again. Don’t forget who you love...Everything we did we did together as a family,” he said.

His daughter Antonietta recalled a memory of her father departing to Vietnam when they lived in Jacksonville.

“I think I was around 10 or 11 years old at the time,” she said. “He had sunglasses on; he didn’t want us to see him crying. Tears were falling down from behind his glasses.”

In the hardest times, Ramos said praying was an anchor and always will be, even today. He recalled praying as he laid on the ground in Vietnam, far from home. The starry sky painted over Ramos; he spoke to God as spiritual refuge from the stressors of combat that rattled him.

“There’s many ways you can find where you can pray. It helps you through the day and night. You include who you love,” he said.


Ramos’ ribbons and medals reflect his illustrious 20-year career. The colorful decorations pinned to his uniform, his “stack” as Marines call it colloquially, serve as bookmarks in the library of memories and challenges he went through. Among them, Ramos earned the Bronze Star Medal with a Combat “V” device (the fourth highest military decoration for valor), one Vietnam Cross of Gallantry (VCoG) with a silver star and one with a palm (the highest degree), a Good Conduct Medal with six stars, a Navy Commendation Medal with a Combat “V” device, a Combat Action Ribbon, a Vietnamese Service Ribbon with three stars, a Navy Unit Citation with a star, a National Defense Medal with a star, a Korean Service Medal with two stars, a United Nation’s Medal, a Korean Presidential Unit Citation Medal, a Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with (1960-) Device, and a Presidential Unit Citation before being merited an honorable discharge. These medals signify a quiet, but bursting due respect and are a visual representation of his ethical code, morals and virtues. A tale about a warrior, who, in this case, survived to tell it.

Ramos is particularly proud of being awarded the VCoG. The medal was created in 1950 to honor service members and civilians who carried out acts of heroism and valor in combat with the enemy. South Vietnam awarded it to each allied nation that supported them during the war.

Sophisticated golden yellow stripes weave through the old glory red ribbon that holds up the medal in acclaim. The golden Celtic cross is sat on top of a wreath, with two swords crossed between the arms. The outline of Vietnam and the words “QUOC-GIA LAO-TUONG", meaning “reward of the state”, are inscribed in the center.

Ramos reminisced on the moment in combat that earned him the VCoG. Tears welled in his eyes as his choking up made it hard to complete sentences, but he continued pouring his heart out.

“One of my men got shot, I dragged him away..." he said.

His daughter asked if reliving it was too much for him. He gave a firm but respectful “no” and continued.

“Enemy sniper fire was out there. Where he was going he could no longer proceed. That’s why you must do this…happening fast, and seeing your buddy falling down and nothing you can do, no medic. I dragged him away, saved this young man's life," Ramos said.

"Some people die and some live, just a fact of life. You're here today, you're there tomorrow," he said.

Ramos continuously emphasizes how much respect and credit that Navy Corpsmen deserve. They teach how to save lives and help your fellow man, he said, and are unsung heroes of war to him.

"Corpsman in the Navy are very essential. In combat zones, bleeding, they patch you up, apply tourniquets, no matter where the place may be. Put you on the Navy ship. I remember there was always a ship out there (for us),” he said.


In an ever-changing social and political landscape, one can question what patriotism truly means. Ramos is just as much of a poster boy as the one hanging in recruiting offices today. The Marines that Ramos found so sparkling in his eyes in the 1950s; tough, selfless men marching proudly.

“Being so energetic in my early life,” he said, “I saw those guys dressed up in blues and going to parades and I knew, that’s what I want to do. To be faithful to my country and love the uniform that I wear.”

Ramos believes that as long as the training remains sufficient, the Marines of today still sustain our role as the finest fighting force in the world.

“Marines today, with the right training, are still the same,” he said. “You take him as your man because he’s new, he doesn’t know what he’s facing. He’s becoming part of the team. You look out for yourself as well as you look for your buddy.”

A lot of young Marines approach him and commend him for his service.

“I remember they saw your hat on your head in the mall,” his daughter said to him.

It’s a shining light of pride when these young Marines come up to him, but he wishes they thought more seriously about the implications of what their ultimate duty entails and to never take it lightly, he said.

“At the mall, this kid, he was so happy,” said Ramos. “He has a family, a wife and kid. He was so happy because they are sending him away where bombs are going off. Who is happy to put themselves through that? Where innocent people are getting killed, losing their lives for no meaning?”

“Fighting in a doggone tunnel, trying to protect yourself,” he said. “There’s not life down that tunnel. People on that side are gonna stop you. Who’s gonna give you first aid in that particular moment?”

His piece of advice for the current generation of Marines is that he never wishes anyone to look forward to combat. Marines have a reputation to be confident and boisterous, nothing can top them. While it is their ultimate purpose to kill those trying to kill U.S. citizens or their allies, the line of satisfaction may be blurred. Ramos thinks Marines today need not to dip into the insanity that is looking forward to the day when you may never return.

His prayers and condolences go to the people in current wars. He’s never been about the slaying of the innocent, but for justice and self-defense.

“Right now you look at television and you see all these things going on. People killing people for no reason. That’s not the way the Lord wanted it. The Lord gave you life, you take care of that and treat others how you like to be treated,” Ramos said.

One could gather that an older gentleman who has been in his shoes would be one to want to share his story with everyone, but Ramos prefers to remain humble.

"I know what I've done, why need to tell everyone about it? They tell their story and you told yours. Just don’t brag about it, stay humble,” he said.

“You know what you’ve done. And you’re proud of it. That person has never been there. How can they judge you? They wanna talk about it, they can talk all they want,” he said.


Does Ramos believe he was born to be a Marine?

“Oh, absolutely,” he said with a calm and sure demeanor, like it was a silly thing for him to even question.

“No matter what you’re always a Marine, and you conduct yourself like one,” he said with certainty.

“Help others, not thinking of getting something in the back end, but because your heart tells you it’s the right thing to do.”

His faith enduring, Ramos is an embodiment of the motto, "Semper Fidelis."

“Life is what you make of it,” he said. “Like you’re on the Eiffel Tower, looking from up there and you see the bottom. You see everything you’ve done or that you’ve never done before. I realized, there’s always a solution to everything in life.”

Ramos expressed gratitude for those interested in his journey and for the opportunity to be interviewed.

“When heading to bed at night, I can think, ‘I’m satisfied’,” said Ramos.

The obstacles he struggled through don’t serve as mental torment today. His mental and spiritual peace allow him to feel pride instead, helping Ramos to rest easy knowing he has lived a righteous life.

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