THE LAST PA­TROL

Maxim - - CONTENTS - by ETHAN ROCKE

DOES ONE OF AMER­ICA’S MOST STO­RIED MARINE COM­MAN­DOS DE­SERVE THE MEDAL OF HONOR?

JIM CA­PERS FOUGHT IN SOME OF THE MOST SAV­AGE BAT­TLES IN VIET­NAM. MANY BE­LIEVE HE’S THE UL­TI­MATE MARINE. BUT DOES HE DE­SERVE THE NA­TION’S HIGH­EST AWARD FOR VALOR?

“WE’RE GET­TING OUT OF HERE— ALL OF US,” CA­PERS YELLED TO HIS MEN. “WE’RE NOT GO­ING TO DIE ON THIS TRAIL.”

IN LATE JAN­UARY 1967, A TEAM OF ELITE MARINES BE­LONG­ING TO THE THIRD FORCE RE­CON­NAIS­SANCE COM­PANY DROPPED ONE BY ONE FROM A CH-46 HE­LI­COPTER INTO THE COLD AND RAIN­SOAKED JUN­GLE NEAR THE BOR­DER OF LAOS IN CEN­TRAL VIET­NAM. THEY WERE SOME 20 MILES BE­HIND EN­EMY LINES. AMONG THEM WERE CAP­TAIN KEN JOR­DAN, A RANGY TEXAN WITH SANDY BLOND HAIR, AND HIS AS­SIS­TANT PA­TROL LEADER, SEC­OND LIEU­TENANT JAMES CA­PERS JR., THE ONLY BLACK COMMANDO ON THE TEAM. EIGHT OTHER MARINES, AN IN­TER­PRETER, AND A VIET CONG DE­FEC­TOR ROUNDED OUT THE GROUP.

Their mission was risky, handed down from the CIA: The de­fec­tor claimed that four Amer­i­can POWS were be­ing held in a Viet Cong pri­son camp, and the Marines were charged with get­ting them out.

As the noise of the chop­per grew faint, the com­man­dos silently pro­ceeded through the jun­gle. Af­ter three days, they lo­cated the camp. It was aban­doned. Some of the team quickly formed a se­cu­rity perime­ter, while oth­ers be­gan doc­u­ment­ing what they found. Jor­dan stood with his back to a tree, sur­vey­ing the eerie scene. Sud­denly, a noise from the woods, fol­lowed by a blast from one of the Marines’ M16s, rup­tured three days of per­fect tac­ti­cal si­lence, and a Viet Cong sol­dier col­lapsed into the bush.

Spot­ting an­other VC sol­dier aim­ing a gun di­rectly at him from 15 me­ters away, Jor­dan swung his M16 up and squeezed the trig­ger, drop­ping his would-be killer with a sin­gle shot. Within sec­onds, the team was rac­ing through the jun­gle, a Viet Cong re­sponse force amass­ing in its wake.

As the com­man­dos moved swiftly through the bush, Ca­pers dropped back to booby-trap the path be­hind them with grenades. The en­emy was ev­ery­where, but for hours, the team evaded them. Sergeant Ron Yer­man, the ra­dio op­er­a­tor, called for an ex­trac­tion, and they made their way up a steep, rut­ted slope to higher ground. The to­pog­ra­phy was less than ideal, forc­ing the CH-46 to hover above the thick jun­gle canopy while it low­ered a har­ness to hoist the men one at a time. Bul­lets be­gan whip­ping in from all di­rec­tions. Above, the he­li­copter’s 50-cal­iber ma­chine guns roared to life, ham­mer­ing the wilder­ness around them.

By Yer­man’s ac­count, Cap­tain Jor­dan was one of the first Marines up into the bird. When Ca­pers led pa­trols, he al­ways in­sisted on be­ing the last man on the ground. On this oc­ca­sion, he again waited un­til the rest of the com­man­dos were safely in the chop­per, dart­ing from tree to rock to tree again, squeez­ing off a few rounds at each point to give the illusion that there were mul­ti­ple sol­diers still on the ground.

The hoist fi­nally de­scended once more. Af­ter strug­gling to se­cure him­self to the har­ness, Ca­pers was lifted into the air. As he dan­gled, a sin­gle round slashed his face—a graz­ing wound, but it burned like hell.

Years later, Yer­man cred­ited Ca­pers for get­ting the team out alive: “Chaos en­sued, and Lt. Ca­pers took charge and or­ga­nized a rapid egress to­ward a land­ing zone. He was the most pro­fes­sional Marine I ever knew.”

Yer­man’s tes­ti­mony is con­tained in a se­ries of in­ter­views com­piled for Jim Ca­pers’ 2007 rec­om­men­da­tion for the Medal of Honor, the na­tion’s high­est mil­i­tary award. It is granted only to a ser­vice mem­ber who has “dis­tin­guished him­self con­spic­u­ously by gal­lantry and in­tre­pid­ity at the risk of his life above and be­yond the call of duty.”

Ca­pers was, by all ac­counts, an ex­tra­or­di­nary Marine. His tac­ti­cal in­no­va­tions earned him a place in the U.S. Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand’s Commando Hall of Honor. So thor­oughly did he rep­re­sent the ideals and mythol­ogy of the Corps that his pic­ture graced a near-ubiq­ui­tous and highly suc­cess­ful re­cruit­ing poster fo­cused on at­tract­ing mi­nor­ity of­fi­cers in the early ’70s: ask a marine, it said un­der an im­age of Ca­pers in dress uni­form, the or­nate Mameluke sword, unique to Marine of­fi­cers, at his side.

Of the 3,493 Medals of Honor awarded since it was es­tab­lished early in the Civil War, nearly all have been in recog­ni­tion of ex­cep­tional per­for­mance over a pe­riod of a short du­ra­tion—events that oc­curred over the course of days, min­utes, or even sec­onds.

In Ca­pers’ case, how­ever, the POW res­cue mission was just one chap­ter in a lengthy chron­i­cle of heroic ac­tions dur­ing his eight-month tour in Viet­nam—an ex­em­plary record of danger­ous mis­sions that ul­ti­mately earned him the rep­u­ta­tion as the so-called “spir­i­tual founder of Marine Corps spe­cial op­er­a­tions,” in the words of Ma­jor Gen­eral Paul E. Le­feb­vre. In­deed, the “sum­mary of ac­tion” sub­mit­ted to the Marine Corps Award Branch on Ca­pers’ be­half ran 5,700 words. Its length was un­prece­dented, as was its scope. To some, Ca­pers’ ex­ploits—his nu­mer­ous acts of hero­ism and the lethal­ity he brought to bear against the en­emy—de­manded no less.

But do they meet the Medal of Honor cri­te­rion of “per­sonal brav­ery or self-sac­ri­fice so con­spic­u­ous as to clearly dis­tin­guish the in­di­vid­ual above his or her com­rades”? The Marine Corps says no. But at 77, Ca­pers isn’t through fight­ing.

BORN TO A SOUTH CAROLINA SHARE­CROP­PER IN 1937, CA­PERS IS a child of the Jim Crow South. Four of his seven broth­ers and sis­ters died be­fore the age of 10. In 1943, af­ter a lo­cal sher­iff is­sued a war­rant for his ar­rest, Ca­pers’ fa­ther fled to Bal­ti­more, and the fam­ily soon fol­lowed. “My fa­ther was a vi­o­lent man,” Ca­pers re­calls. “He got into an al­ter­ca­tion. I’m not sure if the crime was se­ri­ous enough for a lynch­ing, but he felt that to sur­vive, we had to leave South Carolina.” In Bal­ti­more, the Caperses were poor, but his mom ran a tight house­hold, and they got by.

Jim Ca­pers was a smart, rest­less 18-year-old kid when he en­listed in the Marines with a high school pal in 1956. “A lot of peo­ple had helped me and my fam­ily get by,” he says, “and the Marine Corps seemed like a good way to give some­thing back.” On the hot Septem­ber day he left for boot camp, his fa­ther drove him to the train sta­tion. The el­der Ca­pers had served time on a chain gang, and he un­der­stood the strug­gle of be­ing a black man in a coun­try rife with in­sti­tu­tional racism. “You’re a man now,” his fa­ther told him. “You know what you’ve got­ten into. You’ve cho­sen it.”

From day one, Ca­pers was determined to dis­tin­guish him­self among his white peers. “The Marine Corps did not wel­come in­di­vid­u­als like me,” he says sim­ply. “But the hi­er­ar­chy thought, If he’s got the skills, at least give him the chance to try. That’s all I wanted.”

Ca­pers set his sights on be­com­ing an elite commando, vol­un­teer­ing for duty with the First Force Re­con­nais­sance Com­pany. Force Re­con was the only Spe­cial Ops unit in the Corps in those days, ded­i­cated to the danger­ous task of long-range re­con­nais­sance—ob­serv­ing and doc­u­ment­ing ac­tiv­ity deep in en­emy ter­ri­tory—as well as un­con­ven­tional war­fare tac­tics sim­i­lar to those of the Navy SEALS and the Green Berets. The bar was set high: Team mem­bers needed to pos­sess an ex­tremely di­verse— and deadly—skill set. Ca­pers rose to the chal­lenge, com­plet­ing ev­ery tac­ti­cal school or course the mil­i­tary could throw at him.

In 1965, he trans­ferred to Third Force Re­con Com­pany, bring­ing with him a rep as a non-

com­mis­sioned of­fi­cer en­tirely de­voted to the Corps and its val­ues. Ca­pers was placed in charge of an all-white 20-man pla­toon. With his hard stare and for­mi­da­ble build, his author­ity was never in ques­tion. “[He] was stand­ing in front of the for­ma­tion with con­fi­dence and charisma,” one of his men wrote. “I am Sergeant Ca­pers,” he told them, “and we will be the best pla­toon of Marines in the world.”

By early 1966, Ca­pers had achieved the rank of staff sergeant. In Au­gust of that year, the First and Fifth pla­toons were de­ployed to cen­tral Viet­nam. Af­ter a decade in the Marines, Ca­pers was about to put his years of train­ing to the test, ar­riv­ing in-coun­try just as the most bru­tal and cru­cial phase of the war was get­ting un­der way. “I wasn’t afraid be­cause I had a job to do, and my job was to lead and to look out for my guys,” he re­calls.

Force Re­con’s pri­mary mission was to gather crit­i­cal in­tel­li­gence, usu­ally with lit­tle sup­port and few re­sources. They were ghosts—com­man­dos who, by def­i­ni­tion, only emerge to fight their way out of a fix.

By Novem­ber 1966, the re­lent­less pace of op­er­a­tions had taken a stag­ger­ing toll on Third Force Re­con. The unit had suf­fered many ca­su­al­ties, in­clud­ing two of­fi­cers killed in ac­tion, cre­at­ing a lead­er­ship vac­uum. Mean­while, Ca­pers’ team—which had adopted the nick­name Broad­minded—had evolved into a highly lethal and ag­ile one un­der his lead­er­ship. His rep­u­ta­tion for cold-eyed ef­fi­ciency was grow­ing fast.

On a rainy day in late Novem­ber, Ca­pers re­ported to his bat­tal­ion com­man­der’s tent in Phu Bai. Lieu­tenant Colonel Gary Wilder told Ca­pers to raise his right hand and take the oath to be­come a com­mis­sioned of­fi­cer. Cap­tain Ken Jor­dan was there to pin on the sec­ond lieu­tenant in­signia. Dur­ing the en­tire Viet­nam War, only 62 en­listed men were bat­tle­field com­mis­sioned. “A lot of the Ne­gro Marines came over and saluted me and shook my hand,” Ca­pers re­calls. “And th­ese were guys who I felt had paved the way for me, guys who had been through the seg­re­ga­tion years and World War II and Korea. Sud­denly I was a lieu­tenant, and they were say­ing ‘sir’ to me. It felt odd be­cause th­ese were men who I looked up to.”

Ca­pers knew that it was stan­dard pro­ce­dure to trans­fer newly com­mis­sioned of­fi­cers to an­other unit. For him, that would mean as­sum­ing a more com­fort­able, and less danger­ous, role in the war. But he re­fused to aban­don his men. His re­quest to stay with Team Broad­minded was granted, and he re­turned to the fight, lead­ing pa­trols as if noth­ing had changed.

IN LATE 1966, KHE SANH COM­BAT BASE WAS THE BLOOD-SOAKED tip of the spear of north-cen­tral Viet­nam. Even by the stan­dards of a bru­tal con­flict, it was hell, a squalid hill­top out­post over­look­ing a val­ley through which Com­mu­nist forces moved sup­plies to bat­tle­fields far­ther south. Third Force be­gan ar­riv­ing at the out­post in De­cem­ber, re­plac­ing a de­tach­ment of ex­hausted Green Berets. “The bunkers they left be­hind were so rat in­fested, the rats would chew on your ears and nose at night,” wrote Wal­ter Doroski, Broad­minded’s point man, in 2008. “[Cor­po­ral Michael] Scan­lon was the first to get amoe­bic dysen­tery. I dug a hole in the side of the trench to pro­tect him from in­com­ing rounds, slid him in, and fed him when he could eat.”

When Jor­dan was trans­ferred out of Khe Sanh in Fe­bru­ary, the task of co­or­di­nat­ing the en­tire de­tach­ment’s pa­trols fell to Ca­pers. As­saults on the out­post were con­stant, punc­tu­ated by ex­plo­sions and cries of “Corps­man!” echo­ing across the val­ley. The preser­va­tion of Khe Sanh de­pended on Ca­pers’ “raggedy-ass re­con teams.” In the jun­gle, the Marines were clash­ing daily with a grow­ing en­emy force.

Ef­forts to con­vey that re­al­ity up the chain of com­mand had been fruit­less. The Amer­i­can brass, un­der Gen­eral Wil­liam C. West­more­land, re­mained un­de­terred in its stance that ac­tiv­ity around Khe Sanh was in­signif­i­cant. Ten months af­ter Ca­pers’ ten­ure, the in­fa­mous Battle of Khe Sanh—im­me­di­ately fol­lowed by the Tet Of­fen­sive—would prove that the size and scope of North Viet­namese Army op­er­a­tions in the area had been trag­i­cally mis­cal­cu­lated. But for now, it was all about stay­ing the course.

“THERE WAS NO BACK­SLAP­PING,” CA­PERS RE­CALLS. “FOR US, DEATH AND KILLING HAD BE­COME BUSI­NESS AS USUAL.”

Un­less they were “shot out of the jun­gle,” the teams of Third Force Re­con typ­i­cally spent three to six days on pa­trol at a time, with lit­tle rest in be­tween. In early Fe­bru­ary, Team Broad­minded set out into the jun­gle, ac­com­pa­nied by a Ger­man shep­herd named King. They were hunt­ing an NVA pla­toon in the area. Early in the pa­trol, King alerted, sig­nal­ing the en­emy was close. Ca­pers fig­ured they were out­manned at least 3 to 1, so he mo­tioned for his men to hold their fire un­til they could ma­neu­ver into a bet­ter po­si­tion.

Within min­utes, the dog alerted again, and Ca­pers no­ticed three NVA sol­diers just a few feet away. He opened up on full au­to­matic, drop­ping all three in a sin­gle stroke. Ca­pers’ M16 jammed, but Team Broad­minded had al­ready ini­ti­ated its well­re­hearsed con­tact drill, un­leash­ing a bar­rage of grenades and bul­lets as the en­emy pla­toon scram­bled. Ca­pers, strug­gling to un­jam his ri­fle, saw two more NVA sol­diers emerge, full tilt in a des­per­ate coun­ter­at­tack. He drew his 9 mm and gunned them down. Then he or­dered his men to fin­ish off what re­mained of the en­emy pla­toon. When the battle was over, at least 20 NVA sol­diers lay dead, their corpses ob­scured be­neath a haze of gun­pow­der and smoke. From the sur­round­ing veg­e­ta­tion, the screams of the wounded rang out.

On the chop­per back to Khe Sanh, the team was sub­dued. “There was no back­slap­ping,” Ca­pers re­calls. “For us, death and killing had be­come busi­ness as usual.” They’d be back in the jun­gle in just a few days.

BY MARCH 1967, THE SUR­VIV­ING THIRD FORCE MARINES WERE se­verely battle fa­tigued. They had killed or wounded hun­dreds of en­emy sol­diers, but their grow­ing leg­end within the Corps came at a cost. Three quar­ters of the orig­i­nal 40 Marines were killed or wounded. Ca­pers and his men were trans­ferred back to Phu Bai, a wel­come change from Khe Sanh’s daily ar­tillery and rocket at­tacks.

But the mis­sions kept com­ing. Ca­pers told his bat­tal­ion com­man­der that un­less he got more men, the sur­vivors of Third Force should not run any more pa­trols. Nonethe­less, in late March, Ca­pers was given or­ders to lo­cate a sus­pected North Viet­namese reg­i­men­tal base camp in the sparsely pop­u­lated coastal dis­trict of Phu Loc. He didn’t like the mission, but in Viet­nam, un­de­sir­able mis­sions had be­come all too rou­tine.

Ca­pers gath­ered Broad­minded’s core mem­bers, Sergeant Yer­man, Sergeant Richard Cre­peau, and Billy Ray “Doc” Smith, the team’s med­i­cal corps­man, and laid out the sit­u­a­tion. “He asked us if we would vol­un­teer to go on our last com­bat pa­trol into an al­most im­pos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion,” re­calls Cre­peau. “He told us, ‘I’ve been or­dered to go, but you don’t have to.’

“When your men­tor, your boss, your sur­ro­gate fa­ther asks you to do some­thing, and you’re a Marine, what do you do? You say, ‘Yes, sir.’”

Broad­minded’s mission was to stealth­ily cover the flank of a much larger in­fantry force. They were charged with spot­ting the en­emy and thwart­ing an attack—and any­thing else nec­es­sary to keep the mission go­ing. Over the four days the pa­trol lasted, the team av­er­aged two fire­fights a day. The ter­rain was flat, with ele­phant and beach grass, hedgerows and streams, all of it pep­pered with seem­ingly end­less tun­nels and holes from which en­emy fighters would pe­ri­od­i­cally emerge and then melt away.

The young in­fantry force com­man­der who di­rected the op­er­a­tion ra­dioed Ca­pers’ team, order­ing them to walk down large, open trails, which

con­tra­dicted their doc­trine of stealth. By the fourth day, Broad­minded had found four booby-trapped trails—likely am­bush sites, a danger­ous sit­u­a­tion Ca­pers re­ported to the com­man­der. On the last day of the pa­trol, how­ever, he was or­dered to take his team back the way they’d come.

The team all un­der­stood the na­ture of the mission. Un­der Gen­eral West­more­land’s strat­egy of at­tri­tion, body counts had been deemed the pri­mary met­ric of suc­cess. And you can’t stack bod­ies if you can’t find an en­emy to attack and kill. The cold re­al­ity was that Broad­minded was be­ing used as bait—flush­ing out en­emy forces so the regular in­fantry could swoop in for the kind of glo­ri­ous pro­tracted battle the gen­er­als craved.

“I could have re­fused those or­ders,” says Ca­pers. “But I knew if I didn’t walk down those trails and lo­cate that base camp, the regular grunts would, and a lot more peo­ple might get killed. I couldn’t live with that.”

The team ma­neu­vered slowly and care­fully, iden­ti­fy­ing and with­draw­ing from three am­bush sites. As the Marines were about to with­draw from a fourth, King alerted.

A Clay­more mine is an 8.5x3–inch con­vex slab of inch-deep plas­tic, packed full of C4 ex­plo­sives and hun­dreds of steel balls. It usu­ally sits a few inches above the ground and func­tions like a gi­ant shot­gun shell. Viet­namese fighters had daisy-chained sev­eral mines to­gether. Cre­peau re­calls the mo­ment they det­o­nated like a scene from a film: The five men in front of him were flung to the ground in slow mo­tion. As he watched the shock wave of vi­o­lence, a steel ball punched through his leg.

From the jun­gle dark­ness, a pla­toon of NVA sol­diers un­leashed hell from two di­rec­tions. Within sec­onds, nearly ev­ery mem­ber of the team was badly wounded. The blast knocked Ca­pers against a tree and punc­tured his body in 14 places. His right leg was bro­ken, and as he lay se­verely con­cussed, he looked over and saw King, limp and life­less on the bloody jun­gle floor. The dog had been be­tween Ca­pers and the blast.

Lance Cor­po­ral Harry Ni­co­laou, a moun­tain of a man who car­ried the heavy M60 ma­chine gun with ease, sprayed fire to­ward the en­emy, de­spite hav­ing his right leg nearly blown off at the knee. “God­damn it, you mother­fuck­ers!” he screamed.

Yer­man crawled over to Ca­pers. “We’re all down, sir!” he yelled. “But we can still fight!”

Pri­vate First Class Henry Stan­ton car­ried the team’s only M79 grenade launcher. He was bleed­ing through his mouth and nose when he said to Ca­pers, “I don’t think we’re go­ing to make it this time.”

“We’re go­ing to make it, son,” Ca­pers said, try­ing to catch his breath. “Just hold on.”

En­emy grenades were ex­plod­ing from ev­ery di­rec­tion. Ca­pers or­dered Yer­man to re­dis­tribute the team’s ammo, and his in­jured men to form a tight se­cu­rity perime­ter. Doc Smith, bleed­ing from his neck and face, sprinted from man to man, treat­ing and dress­ing their wounds.

Soon he got to Ca­pers. “Doc, I’m OK!” Ca­pers barked. “I'm only hit a lit­tle. Take care of Nic. I think he caught most of it.”

Doc gave Ca­pers a shot of mor­phine and then sprinted over to Ni­co­laou. Yer­man was work­ing on get­ting the team ex­tracted, call­ing for help from the grunts. Ca­pers told Cre­peau to call in mor­tars on their po­si­tion. He knew the mor­tar men would in­ten­tion­ally off­set the rounds by a few hun­dred feet and Cre­peau could then call in ad­just­ments un­til the mor­tars were fall­ing on the en­emy. Still, it was a danger­ous gam­ble.

Soon mor­tars started tear­ing through the canopy. “That’s it. More!” Ca­pers was shout­ing. “Move ’em closer!”

The en­emy fire died down, and Ca­pers called off the mor­tars. There was an aw­ful smell—acrid smoke and burned flesh and blood and shit. But re­in­force­ments were ar­riv­ing. “We’re get­ting out of here—all of us,” Ca­pers yelled to his men. “We’re not go­ing to die on this trail.”

The grunts ar­rived and helped the team to­ward the ex­trac­tion site, down a rain-swept path. Ca­pers used his ri­fle as a cane, blood slosh­ing in his jun­gle boots as he walked. The group took turns car­ry­ing King’s body.

Dusk was de­scend­ing as they ap­proached the ex­trac­tion point. One H-34 he­li­copter landed while an­other cir­cled over­head, pro­vid­ing cover from the re­main­ing en­emy forces. The crew chief helped ev­ery- one onto the bird. King’s body lay on the ground.

Ca­pers, hazy from mor­phine and blood loss, drew his gun. The dog was com­ing with them, he told the chief, or Ca­pers was stay­ing be­hind.

The crew chief jumped out and heaved King’s body onto the chop­per. Sec­onds later, the bird lifted about six feet, then fell back to Earth. “It’s no good,” Ca­pers said, try­ing to get off the air­craft so it could take off. The crew chief yanked him back in. On the sec­ond at­tempt, the he­li­copter climbed about eight feet be­fore fall­ing hard again.

The pi­lots tried one more time to take off, the sound of ex­plo­sions and in­com­ing fire seem­ing to sig­nal their doom. This time the he­li­copter rose slowly be­fore lurch­ing for­ward and climb­ing to­ward an ash-colored sky.

CA­PERS RE­MEM­BERS THE IN­SIDE OF THE FIELD HOS­PI­TAL AS “a butcher shop.” Blood was ev­ery­where. The doc­tors had to am­pu­tate Ni­co­laou’s leg be­low the knee. Ca­pers looked around and was over­come by shame. Broad­mind­e­d had never been am­bushed be­fore.

At Bethesda Naval Med­i­cal Cen­ter, Dot­tie Ca­pers made her way to her hus­band’s room on the 14th floor with their seven-year-old son, Gary, in tow. Ca­pers had met his fu­ture wife on a warm spring day in Bal­ti­more when he was just 15, and they’d mar­ried a few years af­ter he en­listed. Their son was born blind, but now seemed to be look­ing at Ca­pers when he put his hand on his fa­ther’s bed. In Viet­nam, Ca­pers had dreamed of this re­u­nion, but now the bit­ter sting of shame was all he could feel.

The doc­tors told Ca­pers he might never walk again. He had sev­eral surg­eries, in­clud­ing a ma­jor skin graft to close the gap­ing hole above his right an­kle. Soon he was in a body cast, then a wheel­chair, then crutches. For months, Ca­pers rarely got up from his hos­pi­tal bed. Con­sumed with re­morse and rage, he strug­gled to rec­on­cile what had hap­pened to him. One day, Dot­tie picked him up for a drive. She brought him to a park­ing lot and told him to get out of the car. He strug­gled from the pas­sen­ger seat. Then

“NONE OF US HAD HIS LEVEL OF COURAGE,” RON YER­MAN WROTE. “NONE OF US WERE AS READY AS HE WAS TO GIVE HIS LIFE FOR MEN IN HIS TEAM.”

Dot­tie snatched his cane and walked away. No more self-pity.

“You can walk,” she said, “and you’re go­ing to walk to me.” And when she said it, Ca­pers be­lieved her. He thought about the man he was be­fore, and he made his ag­o­niz­ing first steps into Dot­tie’s arms. A few months later, Ca­pers passed his med­i­cal re­view board, al­low­ing him to stay in the Marines. Ca­pers was awarded two Bronze Stars with Valor in Viet­nam. Some of his men felt it was in­ad­e­quate recog­ni­tion for his bat­tle­field ex­ploits, but if Ca­pers agreed, he kept it to him­self. “I had never even thought about it re­ally, be­cause af­ter Phu Loc, I felt like I had failed,” he says.

DECADES LATER, IN EARLY 2007, CA­PERS AT­TENDED A NA­TIONAL Naval Of­fi­cers As­so­ci­a­tion din­ner at Camp Le­je­une. About half the of­fi­cers gath­ered in dress uni­forms were mi­nori­ties. Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Ron­ald S. Cole­man de­liv­ered a speech and an­nounced that Ca­pers was be­ing rec­om­mended for the Medal of Honor. The an­nounce­ment was met with a wave of ap­plause. Marines lined up to shake Ca­pers’ hand. “They had al­ready anointed me,” Ca­pers says. “To them, I was al­ready the first black Marine Corps of­fi­cer to re­ceive the Medal of Honor.”

The idea to nom­i­nate Jim Ca­pers for the Medal of Honor orig­i­nated in the mind of Bri­gadier Gen­eral James L. Wil­liams. He cred­its his de­ci­sion to join the mil­i­tary in 1976 to Ca­pers’ ask a marine poster. By 2007, he was pow­er­ful enough to vin­di­cate his per­sonal hero, as well as the other mem­bers of Third Force Re­con ’66–67—now known as the “lost de­tach­ment” be­cause its of­fi­cial records had been lost for years. Ma­jor Gen­eral Wal­ter Gaskin, an­other black Marine Corps of­fi­cer and Wil­liams’ boss, threw his full sup­port be­hind Wil­liams’ ef­forts. “Given the im­pact Ca­pers had on the bat­tle­field,” says Wil­liams, “it was im­por­tant for his nom­i­na­tion to re­flect the high­est valor award.”

The gen­er­als found their gun­slinger in Cor­po­ral James Mon­roe Dixon III, 25, who was as­signed to the Sec­ond Marine Di­vi­sion’s per­son­nel and ad­min­is­tra­tion sec­tion in 2007. A Ge­or­gian, Dixon had been wounded dur­ing his third in­fantry tour in Iraq. He was highly in­tel­li­gent, with a thick drawl and un­ruly hair that earned him the nick­name “Rooster.”

Amazed by the ac­counts he heard from Ca­pers’ men, Dixon’s en­thu­si­asm for the Medal of Honor case reached the point of ob­ses­sion. The sub­mis­sion grew well be­yond what is typ­i­cal of such doc­u­ments, cov­er­ing not just one event but Ca­pers’ en­tire tour in Viet­nam.

Dixon was con­vinced he had dis­cov­ered a prece­dent for this. But he was also in­spired by the com­pelling wit­ness state­ments he gath­ered from the men Ca­pers had led in battle, a vivid por­trait of a self­less, heroic leader. “None of us had his level of courage,” Ron Yer­man wrote. “None of us were as ready as he was to give his life for his men at any mo­ment.”

Team Broad­minded’s point man, Wal­ter Doroski, agreed. “[I’ve] worked over­seas in over 30 un­de­vel­oped coun­tries on three con­ti­nents for 25 years,” he wrote. “I never found an equal to Lieu­tenant Ca­pers’ lead­er­ship, de­vo­tion to his mission and men, or courage in battle.”

As Dixon built his case, only one voice was miss­ing: that of Ken Jor­dan, Ca­pers’ old com­mand­ing of­fi­cer. Jor­dan was the only mem­ber of Third Force to ini­tially re­ject Dixon’s re­quest to sup­port the ef­fort. Ac­cord­ing to Dixon, Jor­dan said, “Not only no, but hell, no!” The ges­ture was in­ter­preted by Ca­pers’ sup­port­ers as an af­front, one that ripped open old wounds.

Of­fi­cial notes from a phone in­ter­view be­tween Dixon’s su­pe­rior and Jor­dan sug­gest that Jor­dan’s reser­va­tions stemmed from a be­lief that Ca­pers’ Viet­nam ser­vice had al­ready been lauded enough. “Jim Ca­pers, as good as he was, was just one of 40 great men,” he said. Ul­ti­mately, Jor­dan of­fered a late, and tepid, en­dorse­ment in 2008—which in­cluded a few notes point­ing out er­rors in Dixon’s sum­mary.

Jor­dan in­sists that he just wanted to get the facts straight. “I’d give Jim 16 Medal of Hon­ors if he had the doc­u­men­ta­tion for it,” he says. “Jim will tell you how close we were. To lose his friend­ship be­cause of this was and still is very de­te­ri­o­rat­ing for me.”

The Medal of Honor is the only mil­i­tary medal that must be ap­proved by the pres­i­dent on be­half of Congress. First, how­ever, the nom­i­na­tion must go through nu­mer­ous lay­ers of mil­i­tary bu­reau­cracy. The man over­see­ing this process was Re­tired Colonel Lee Fre­und, head of the Marine Corps Awards Branch.

Fre­und and his staff re­viewed the Ca­pers pack­age and kicked it back, cit­ing a laun­dry list of ad­min­is­tra­tive and pro­ce­dural er­rors. Fre­und’s ad­vice was that Dixon’s am­bi­tious, cu­mu­la­tive ap­proach to meet­ing the award cri­te­ria was not go­ing to fly. The gen­er­als re­grouped and re­cast the ar­gu­ment. This time the sum­mary of ac­tion fo­cused only on Phu Loc, Team Broad­minded’s doomed last pa­trol in Viet­nam.

A year and a half later, in 2010, Jim Ca­pers re­ceived a let­ter from the Sec­re­tary of the Navy. He had been awarded the Sil­ver Star, two lev­els be­low the Medal of Honor. No ex­pla­na­tion was given.

Fre­und stands firmly be­hind the Marine Corps’ painstak­ingly de­tailed award sys­tem. “We charge the com­man­ders en­dors­ing th­ese awards with main­tain­ing our his­tor­i­cal ethos,” he tells Maxim. “Our stan­dards are where they need to be. We don’t cheapen awards.” Oth­ers, like Gaskin, be­lieve in­sti­tu­tional racism was a fac­tor and that Ca­pers’ honor is long over­due. “Our sys­tem isn't geared to look back and com­pare what im­pact racial prej­u­dice would've had on the process,” he says.

Doug Sterner, an ar­chiv­ist for the Mil­i­tary Times, has seen sim­i­lar dis­putes be­fore. “It’s a very sub­jec­tive award that de­pends very much on how well we tell the story,” he ex­plains. Still, he in­sists that race re­la­tions in the mil­i­tary were al­ready start­ing to im­prove. “Viet­nam was our first truly in­te­grated war. Black Amer­i­cans re­ceived 20 Medals of Honor—com­pared with only two black Amer­i­cans in Korea and none in World War I and World War II, un­til the late up­grades.”

Dixon ul­ti­mately con­vinced Ca­pers to con­tinue push­ing for recog­ni­tion. By then, Ca­pers was alone. His son, Gary, had died in 2003 from a mis­di­ag­nosed rup­tured ap­pen­dix (Ca­pers was awarded a set­tle­ment). Dot­tie passed away from can­cer in 2009. He needed a mission, and Dixon pro­vided one. The men spent months to­gether, living in the same apart­ment in Cal­i­for­nia, draft­ing pe­ti­tions and work­ing on Ca­pers’ mem­oir. Mean­while, Dixon’s own post-trau­matic stress wasn’t sub­sid­ing. In many ways, they were two battle-scarred Marines on the last pa­trol of their lives.

In Fe­bru­ary 2012, Dixon went to visit his fam­ily in Ge­or­gia. Neigh­bors called the sher­iff’s depart­ment around 3:50 a.m. on Fe­bru­ary 19 to say some­one had fired shots on their prop­erty. Roughly five hours later, Dixon phoned Ca­pers. “They have me sur­rounded!” he cried. “You’re go­ing to get the Medal of Honor, sir… i love you.” Shortly there­after, he stepped out­side, and the Ge­or­gia State Pa­trol SWAT team or­dered him to put down his gun. Af­ter fail­ing to com­ply, he was shot and killed. Dixon was 30.

Ca­pers spoke at Dixon’s fu­neral. With a shaky voice, he ex­plained to the crowd how Dixon “got it”—how he un­der­stood the im­por­tance of fight­ing for what is right. Ca­pers’ Sil­ver Star was placed in the cas­ket.

When Ca­pers re­turned to Cal­i­for­nia, he found him­self alone once again—an old, arthritic war­rior with shrap­nel in his bones and a head­ful of hard mem­o­ries. “I’d lost ev­ery­thing im­por­tant to me,” Ca­pers says. “I guess I bought into the idea that the award was big­ger than me be­cause I needed to.” He now feels that the recog­ni­tion is sec­ondary to giv­ing due to his “lost de­tach­ment.” For his sup­port­ers, that’s rea­son enough to battle on. “I’m not go­ing to get over it,” says Gen­eral Wil­liams, now re­tired. “There’s a fail­ure to rec­og­nize a piece of his­tory here. The fight isn’t over.” ■

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