Belatedly, From A Grateful Nation:
BY MARC LEEPSON
On December 5, 1964, in a flag-draped ceremony in the White House, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award for courage under fire, to Roger H.C. Donlon. The Army Special Forces Captain received the honor for the conspicuous gallantry he displayed fighting off a full-bore Viet Cong attack on a Green Beret camp at Nam Dong on July 6 of that year. His was the first Medal of Honor awarded during the Vietnam War.
On May 16, 2012, in a solemn White House ceremony, President Barak Obama presented the Medal of Honor to Rose Sabo-Brown, the widow of Leslie H. Sabo, Jr. The 101st Airborne Division rifleman had been killed in action on May 10, 1970, in Se San, Cambodia, after nearly single-handedly fighting off a large enemy attack. That marked the 249th, and latest, Vietnam War Medal of Honor.
The 2012 award to Sabo came about primarily due to the efforts of Alton Mabb, a 101st Airborne Vietnam veteran. While doing research at the National Archives in May 1999 for the 101st Association magazine, Screaming Eagle, Mabb discovered a Medal of Honor nomination submitted for Sabo by his commanding officer. After spending months and months looking into Sabo’s actions that dayincluding tracking down and interviewing members of Sabo’s unitMabb decided to try to reactivate the nomination.
That was a daunting proposition because it takes an act of Congressliterallyto belatedly award the Medal of Honor. If an MOH nomination is made after the Pentagon’s two-year limit for submission, it must be included in legislation passed by Congress in order to be considered. So, in March 2002 Mabb presented the large amount of evidence he had gathered in support of the Sabo MOH nomination to his member of Congress, Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown of Florida.
Rep. Brown’s office sent the nomination to the Department of the Army. The Army Secretary endorsed it in 2006. Two years later the nomination was written into the massive National Defense Authorization Act of 2008 (HR 4986). The final bill contained four MOH authorizations: for Sabo, for two veterans of the Korean War (Henry Syehla and Woodrow W. Keeble), and for a Civil War Union Army Private named George D. Wilson. Four years later Sabo’s widow received her husband’s Medal of Honor.
As Alton Mabb discovered, an after-the-fact Medal of Honor submission is a long, convoluted process. “The Medal of Honor is so important and the standards are so highand quite rightly sothat it is an almost impossible labor that can take years,” said Joe Galloway, the former Vietnam War newspaper correspondent who has helped with two post-Vietnam War MOH campaigns. “It’s not easy and it shouldn’t be.”
Given those facts, it’s easy to understand why only a handful of Medals of Honor have been awarded to Vietnam veterans since the end of the war. Before Sabo’s 2012 award, the most recent MOH presented to a Vietnam veteran went to the family of Richard L. Etchberger on September 21, 2010. President Obama made the presentation in a somber ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
Etchberger, an Air Force Chief Master Sergeant, lost his life on March 11, 1968, while holding off an NVA attack on a secret USAF radar base called Lima Site 85 on a remote hilltop in Laos, fifteen miles from the North Vietnamese border. Twelve of the nineteen men manning the sitewhich directed air missions into North Vietnam and Laosdied in the furious attack. The others were rescued by a CIA Air America helicopter crew. The casualties at Lima Site 85 amounted to “one of the largest, single ground combat losses in Air Force history,” according to an official USAF statement.
The survivors recommended that Etchberger receive the Medal of Honor. But Site 85 was part of an operation that was top secret. Before going into Laos, Etchberger and the rest of his unit had had to temporarily resign from the Air Force, and were technically civilians working for a private company. The Pentagon, therefore, did not act on the recommendation in 1968 because doing so would have disclosed the existence of the covert base in the neutral nation of Laos.
In 1982, when the mission was declassified, the survivors of Lima 85 renewed their lobbying effort on the Etchberger MOH nomination. The process dragged on for years. It gained momentum in 1999 following the publication of Timothy N. Castle’s book, One Day Too Long: Top Secret Site 85 and the Bombing of North Vietnam.
Still, it took until 2006 before a member of Congress, Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota, officially championed Etchberger’s cause. Two years later, on September 20, 2010, the Secretary of the Air Force signed off on the recommendation. Chief Etchberger’s family received the Medal of Honor the next day at the White House.
“Today, we bring honor to Chief Etchberger’s memory and our nation’s highest tribute to his service,” USAF Secretary Michael Donley said at an induction ceremony for Etchberger at the Pentagon Hall of Heroes. “Once lost beneath impenetrable layers of security, the story of Lima Site 85 and Dick Etchberger’s example of integrity, service, and excellence and of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty is assured of its future.”
The previous Vietnam War Medal of Honor ceremony took place on February 26, 2007, when President George W. Bush presented the award to former Army Maj. Bruce P. Crandall, a pilot who flew for the 229th Assault Helicopter Company. Crandall was honored for his extraordinary heroism on November 14, 1965, during the infamous Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. Campbell made twenty-two flights that day, many in the face of intense fire, rescuing dozens of wounded 1st Cavalry troops. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross after the battle. Years later, a group of 1st Cav veterans began the process to honor Crandall, along with his wingman Ed W. Freeman, with the Medal of Honor.
The campaigns on behalf of Crandall and Freeman gained impetus in 1992 with the publication of We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, the acclaimed book on the battle by Gen. Hal Moore and Galloway. Freeman was the flight leader and second in command of the sixteen-helicopter lift unit at Ia Drang; he made repeated landings under fire to evacuate the wounded. Freeman received the MOH on July 16, 2001, at the White House from President George W. Bush.
Years earlier, when Crandall realized that both he and Freeman were being considered for the award, he had his nomination withdrawn. But that situation changed after Freeman received the award in a White House ceremony which Crandall attended.
“President Bush looked at Crandall and said, ‘How come I’m not giving one to you, too?’ ” Galloway said. Following that exchange, Crandall’s MOH nomination was resubmitted. Sen. John McCain of Arizona spearheaded the effort on Capitol Hill; six years later Crandall was back in the White House receiving his Medal of Honor.
Before that, President George W. Bush had awarded the MOH posthumously on July 8, 2002, to former Army Capt. Humbert R. “Rocky” Versace. The West Point graduate fought to within an inch of his life in a firefight with the VC in October 1963, then was taken prisoner. Versace, who was severely mistreated by his captors, made three attempts to escape, but died in captivity on September 26, 1965.
A fellow POW who escaped in 1968, former Green Beret Lt. James “Nick” Rowe, lobbied heavily to have Versace awarded the Medal of Honor. Vercase received a posthumous Silver Star, instead. Rowe kept up his campaign until he died in 1989.
In 1999 a group of Versace’s high school friends in Alexandria, Virginia, formed The Friends of Rocky Versace to try to upgrade Versace’s Silver Star to the Medal of Honor. A group of Versace’s West Point Class of 1959 members joined the cause, giving impetus to what became a successful three-year lobbying effort.
Duane Frederic, a Cleveland postal worker inspired by Versace’s story as told in Rowe’s 1984 memoir, Five Years to Freedom, voluntarily spent countless hours doing most of the research for the nomination and found reports in the National Archives of interrogations of NVA defectors who testified about Versace’s remarkable steadfastness as a POW.
The official nomination went to the Pentagon in January 2000. The Army approved it in 2001. The MOH was presented a year later.
A MEDIC AND A CORPSMAN
On February 8, 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor at the White House to former Army medic Alfred V. Rascon, who barely escaped death while treating his fellow 173rd Airborne Division troops during a vicious firefight on March 16, 1966, in Long Khanh Province. Among other things, Rascon twice fell on wounded men, shielding them from grenades. The medic was so severely wounded that a chaplain gave him the last rites at the scene.
Rascon’s sergeant, Ray Compton, recommended the medic for the MOH following the battle. But the paperwork became lost in the Pentagon bureaucratic machine. In 1993 Rascon’s fellow 173rd troopers learned of the bureaucratic screw up at a unit reunion, and decided to resurrect the recommendation. Vietnam Veterans of America became involved in the effort, bringing it to the attention of long-time ally, the late Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.). This magazine ran a cover story, “Above & Beyond,” in the January 1995 issue, making the case for Rascon. Five years later the Pentagon finally approved the Rascon MOH recommendation.
“Under any circumstances, a Medal of Honor ceremony is an event of great importance,” President Clinton said at the ceremony in 2000. “Today is especially so, for the rare quality of heroism on display that long-ago day in 1966 [and] for the long, patient wait for recognition.” Clinton then cited Rascon’s war buddies for their perseverance.
“His platoon mates,” Clinton said, “persisted, showing as much loyalty to him as he showed to them.”
Less than two years earlier, on July 10, 1998, Clinton had awarded the MOH in the White House state dining room to Robert R. Ingram. The former Navy Corpsman was wounded so severely in a March 28, 1966, firefight in Quang Ngai Province that he was left for dead on the battlefield. Many members of his 1st Battalion, 7th Marines unit thought Ingram had died after sustaining four wounds, including a bullet through his head, while continuing to minister to fallen Marines.
Ingram’s superiors recommended the MOH for the intrepid corpsman in 1966. But, as was the case with Rascon, the paperwork disappeared. In 1995, at a 7th Marine reunion, Ingram’s former war buddies decided to renew the MOH process. In 1999, Congress approved the recommendation.
“We don’t know how his citation got lost all those year ago,” Clinton said during the ceremonies at the White House. “But we do know why he is here today; because his friends never forgot what he did for them.”
The previous postwar MOH to a Vietnam veteran had been awarded on February 24, 1981, at the Pentagon. President Ronald Reagan presented the Medal to retired Army Master Sergeant Roy P. Benavidez for his courage under fire on May 2, 1968, near Loc Ninh. Benavidez, while on patrol with a 5th Special Forces recon team, killed three enemy soldiers in hand-to-hand combat, in the process rescuing eight men in his unit and suffering three bullet wounds.
According to newspaper reports, the Pentagon had stonewalled Benavidez’s Medal of Honor nomination because there weren’t enough eyewitnesses to corroborate his actions. When a second veteran of the fight came forward in 1980, the military revived the MOH recommendation. A few months later, Benavidez (who had retired from the Army) donned his Special Forces uniform and came to the White House with his wife and three children to accept the Medal of Honor from an emotional President Reagan.
On May 16, 1980, the family of Marine Col. Donald G. Cook received his Medal of Honor. Cook was recognized for his courageous actions as a POW held by the Viet Cong in South Vietnam from December 31, 1964, until he died in captivity on December 8, 1967. Stricken with malaria, Cook, in the words of his MOH citation, “repeatedly [assumed] more than his share of manual labor in order that the other POWs could improve the state of their health. Colonel Cook willingly and unselfishly put the interest of his comrades before that of his own well-being and, eventually, his life.”
The delay in presenting the award came about because details of Col. Cook’s heroism as a POW did not come to light until several of his fellow POWs were liberated and related what he had done. Another factor was that since his body never was recovered, Col. Cook was not declared dead until February 26, 1980. On May 15, 1980, a memorial service took place for Col. Cook at Arlington National Cemetery. The next day Cook’s wife received his posthumous Medal of Honor.
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