After 39 Years, Soldiers Honored for Vietnam Rescue Mission
Erin Siegal for The New York Times
Published: September 30, 2009
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — On the day Ray R. Moreno came home from Vietnam, the day antiwar protestors called him a baby killer, he decided to pack away his Army uniform for good. Memories and nightmares still intruded, but he rarely discussed them. Battle buddies were forgotten.
Former members of Alpha Troop at the reunion of the 11th Armored Cavalry's Veterans of Vietnam and Cambodia in Santa Clara, Calif. From left, John Poindexter, Stanley Carter, Fred Pimental, William Sizemore, Ray R. Moreno and Angel Pagan. Until, that is, he started attending reunions of his troop a few years ago. Suddenly, a door reopened. “They were there; they understand,” Mr. Moreno, 58, said. “If we want to cry, we do. If we don’t, we don’t.”
For many members of his unit, Alpha Troop of the 11th Armored Cavalry, the annual reunions for veterans of Vietnam and Cambodia have become a form of therapy: a chance to reconnect, salve wounds and share bonds forged in an unpopular war.
But this year’s reunion was special for another reason.
At a hotel ballroom in September here, Alpha Troop unveiled a Presidential Unit Citation, the highest military honor for a unit, it received this year from the Army for “extraordinary heroism” in rescuing more than 70 soldiers from a larger North Vietnamese force on March 26, 1970. In the coming weeks, the veterans hope, President Obama himself will formally bestow the citation at a White House ceremony.
For the veterans at this year’s reunion, most in their late 50s and early 60s, the citation was a powerful bit of validation for actions some had tried to forget. “The hurt, the memories, they’re never going to go away,” said Mr. Moreno, of Orosi, Calif. “But it does make it feel a little better that you are recognized for something you did.”
The citation ended a six-year campaign by Alpha Troop’s former commander, John Poindexter, to win recognition for the rescue mission. The quest began, Mr. Poindexter said, after he read a history of the war in which a veteran complained that Alpha Troop soldiers had not received any medals. “It was an epiphany,” Mr. Poindexter said. “I felt I had to right a wrong.”
He began a drive to petition the Army for individual awards and a unit citation, organizing a team of assistants to gather after-action reports, casualty records, photographs and first-person accounts.
Eventually, Mr. Poindexter, a businessman from Texas, compiled a four-inch-thick dossier that he sent to the Army. He also self-published a glossy book titled “The Anonymous Battle,” based on an account of the mission he had written 30 years before.
The documentation helped the troop win not only the presidential citation but also individual medals for 14 members.
The process of reconstructing the battle, however, did more than garner awards. Several veterans say that after Mr. Poindexter contacted them, their interest in Vietnam was revived. Some began looking up Army friends they had not talked to in decades. Others began attending 11th Cavalry reunions for the first time.
Romeo Martin, for example, said that for 33 years, he did not talk about the war, even to his wife. But Mr. Martin, 60, a mailman near Hartford, said reading Mr. Poindexter’s manuscript “got my juices going.”
He located his old tank commander and rekindled their friendship. Another troop member contacted him and they started attending reunions together. “They helped me a lot,” he said. “I was in a shell. There are guys who still are in their shells.”
Pasqual Gutierrez, 60, recalled that when he returned from the war, his East Los Angeles neighborhood was torn by civil rights and antiwar protests. It was, Mr. Gutierrez said, as if the soldiers were “re-entering society through the back door.”
“There wasn’t any hoopla and there wasn’t any fanfare,” he said.
Mr. Gutierrez became a successful architect, a part owner of a firm with 10 branches in California. But others from Alpha Troop did not fare so well. One died of a drug overdose, and several others received diagnoses of post-traumatic stress syndrome.
“The war took a deep, deep toll on them,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “Even to this day, it is held up as the bad example.”
Partly for that reason, Mr. Gutierrez initially refused to contribute to Mr. Poindexter’s book. But after prodding, he wrote a detailed recollection of the battle. And at Mr. Martin’s invitation, he started attending reunions.
“A little network started brewing,” he said. “It was amazing to see these guys and realize we had this experience in life that’s unmatchable.”
For the veterans at the reunion, the battle was mostly a haze of adrenaline-fueled chaos. It began with a call for help. An airborne company had stumbled onto a sprawling North Vietnamese bunker complex near the Cambodian border. The Americans were nearly surrounded and dense jungle had made evacuation by helicopter impossible. Come dark, they seemed sure to be overrun.
“I had no options, no where to retreat,” said George Hobson, the commander of that beleaguered unit, Charlie Company.
But Mr. Poindexter, then a 25-year-old captain, volunteered to bring Charlie Company out. The night before, a mortar round had accidentally exploded inside one of his troop’s vehicles, killing several men and keeping soldiers up all night. But by that afternoon, Alpha Troop was on its Sheridan tanks and armored personnel carriers, breaking brush so thick that drivers could barely see vehicles in front of them.
A firefight ensued when they reached Charlie Company. American planes tried to help, but nearly hit them with a bomb. North Vietnamese would pop out of bunkers, only to be driven back by machine-gun fire. At dusk, the Americans, realizing night would favor the enemy, loaded up the dead, the wounded and the exhausted, and withdrew.
The casualty count was never clearly recorded, but Mr. Poindexter estimates that, including the mortar accident, seven men died and about 70 were wounded in the battle and its prelude.
Mr. Hobson says he believes Charlie Company would have been “wiped out” if Alpha Troop had not arrived when it did. But at the time, it was just another day in Vietnam. Weeks later, Alpha Troop joined the invasion of Cambodia. And the battle became a footnote to history — or less.
One troop member, August Whitlock, recalled that when he left Vietnam, the soldier processing his papers asked if he had been in any major battles. When Mr. Whitlock mentioned the rescue mission, the soldier scanned a list.
No, the soldier told him, there was no such battle on that date.
A version of this article appeared in print on October 1, 2009, on page A17 of the New York edition.
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Thread: 39 Years Later
10-02-2009, 03:10 PM #1
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39 Years Later
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