In the mere two years Richard O'Connor was a Marine in Vietnam, he was wounded three times and earned three Purple Hearts.

Those medals, awarded in 1966 to 1968, are tucked away in a sock drawer, an indication of where O'Connor rates his military hardware.

It is not the medals, but the servicemen and women that were and are important to him.

O'Connor fought alongside his fellow Marines in Charlie Battery, 12th Marine Regiment -- most notably in a bloody battle few remember at Gio Linh, where hundreds fell. The only thing that kept him sane, he says, and soothed the broken souls of his fellow troops was his music -- gentle songs played on the guitar his father sent him.

Richard O’Connor, who earned three Purple Heart medals while serving as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam, is surrounded by some of his guitars at his home in
Richard O'Connor, who earned three Purple Heart medals while serving as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam, is surrounded by some of his guitars at his home in Antioch, Calif., on Tuesday, March 25, 2014. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Bay Area News Group)

More than 40 years later, after raising a family and retiring from a job at PG&E, O'Connor has been sharing his music again at the bedsides of wounded troops arriving back in the States from Iraq and Afghanistan. He also continues to perform the national anthem at various veterans' events around the Bay Area.

Q Where did you get your love for music?

A I grew up in Martinez, and my dad played the guitar and taught me when I was 3, and I've played ever since.

I had the guitar with me in Vietnam. One got blown up, then my dad sent me another one. Being in Vietnam, you can't know what it was like. It defined my life. It's like getting on the freeway and standing in oncoming traffic. The guitar was that little piece of home all the way through.

Q How did you get started playing at Travis?

A My third time wounded, I came home on a stretcher through Travis. Things were not like they are now, where returning soldiers are looked at as heroes. When we came back, we were looked at like something on the bottom of your shoe.

I was mistreated by co-workers. Since then, I've lived most of my life in fear. Yes, I worked at my job, mostly to provide for my family. Then when I retired in 2006, my wheels fell off, so to speak, and I needed some assistance. So I went for help at the VA.

Some of the counselors found some of my friends again from Vietnam who were still alive. That's how it started, going to Travis and playing music. I'd meet up with one of my old friends and we'd drive up there.

When wounded soldiers were coming home, I'd go in the hospital and sing to 'em. Did it for five or six years. There I am sittin' in the chair next to them in their beds, playing my guitar and singing.

I tried to tell them there was still a chance to go out and function in the world, but the worst scars are the ones you can't see.

Q Do you still play for veterans?

A Yes, but soldiers don't really come through Travis right now, so I only perform when my counselor asks me to play somewhere.

But I've also gone to high schools and talked to kids about the war. Some of them seem to understand.

The main thing is, some of the young soldiers and lots of the guys from Vietnam have told me my music helped them.

I don't do this for attention. But when people tell you how much your singing and guitar playing helped and meant something in their lives, especially under the worst possible circumstances, that means a lot.

Follow Angela Hill at Twitter.com/GiveEmHill.