Medal of Honor recipient’s heroic tale
Roy Benavidez was born in 1935 near Cuero, Texas to poverty-stricken sharecroppers of Mexican and Yaqui Indian ancestry. Both parents died of tuberculosis before his eighth birthday. He and his younger brother Roger, along with eight cousins, were raised by their grandfather, an aunt and uncle, in El Campo.
As a young man growing up in humble surroundings, Benavidez shined shoes at a bus station, toiled on farms in Texas and Colorado, and worked in a tire shop. He dropped out of school in the seventh grade and was regularly insulted as ‘a dumb Mexican.’
In 1952, Benavidez enlisted in the Texas Army National Guard before entering the U.S. Army in 1955. Hilaria “Lala” Coy became his wife in 1959, the same year he completed airborne training and joined the 82nd Airborne Division. Benavidez stepped on a land mine during his first tour of Vietnam as an advisor in 1965 and was evacuated to the U.S. The doctors at Brooke Army Medical Center alleged he would never walk again. Despite spinal injuries, Benavidez walked out of the hospital in July ’66. His courage and faith served him well. It would not be the last time.
He returned to active service and received training at Fort Bragg, N.C. for the elite Studies and Observations Group. Still suffering persistent back pain, he returned to Vietnam in Jan. ’68 for an assignment with Detachment B56, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces at Loc Ninh. May 22, 1968: A devoted Catholic, Benavidez was attending prayer services with the chaplain when he heard a desperate radio plea, “Get us out of here! For God’s sake, get us out!” A 12-man Special Forces Recon Team had been pinned down in thick jungle and surrounded by a North Vietnamese Army regiment west of Loc Ninh. Three choppers had already attempted a rescue but were driven off by small arms and anti-aircraft fire. Benavidez did not have orders to go, but with a medical bag and armed only with the knife in his belt, he jumped on a Huey for another attempted rescue.
Once in the area, intense fire kept the chopper from landing. Hovering 10 feet off the ground, Benavidez made the sign of the cross across his chest and leaped off the chopper. The beleaguered recon unit was 75 yards away. Benavidez began the deadly gauntlet, took an AK-47 round through his right leg, got up to run and was knocked back down by a grenade that ripped his face and neck. The wounds were the first of 37 separate bullet; shrapnel, and bayonet injures he would receive during six hours of intense combat.
Praying aloud, Benavidez mustered the courage to rise again and sprint under fire to the crippled 12-man squad. He found four dead and the other eight badly wounded. As he passed out ammo and injected the wounded with morphine while calling in air strikes, Benavidez was hit again. Bleeding and in pain, he dragged injured and dead soldiers to the hovering chopper and provided cover fire with an assault rifle he found on the ground as the chopper moved to recover even more bodies.
As the enemy fire increased, Benavidez made another sprint to retrieve classified documents of radio codes and call signals from the dead team leader. Grabbing the documents, he was hit in the stomach while taking grenade fragments to the back. Coughing up blood, he tried to return to the chopper only to see the pilot receive a mor- tal wound and the Huey crash to the ground.
Benavidez pulled the wounded from the overturned chopper, called in air strikes, and directed fire for helicopter gunships. With trickling blood briefly blinding his vision, he sat up a defensive perimeter and continued to rally the wounded men to fight on. Benavidez later recalled, “I made the sign of the cross across my chest so often my arms looked like an airplane propeller.”
He was shot several more times before the second chopper came in. Telling the guys to keep praying, Benavidez slung a wounded soldier over his shoulder and made a run for the chopper. En route to the hovering Huey, an enemy soldier jumped up and clubbed Benavidez from behind with his rifle butt, knocking Benavidez off his
feet. Bayoneted in both arms, Benavidez managed to grasp the enemy bayonet which gashed his hand but gave him enough time to pull out his knife and kill the enemy soldier. With a broken jaw, both arms cut, a slashed hand, bullet holes and shrapnel in his body, Benavidez helped the last wounded warrior onto the chopper — their Vietnamese interpreter.
The rescued soldiers inside the Huey pulled Benavidez’s battered body on board the chopper. Blood pooled then poured out the door. The flight back to Loc Ninh was a 20 minute ordeal, with Benavidez holding his intestines in his hands during the entire trip. At Loc Ninh, Benavidez was triaged and pronounced dead. As the doctor attempted to zip up the body bag, Benavidez could only marshal enough strength to do one thing to prove he was still alive: he spit in the doctor’s face.
The six hour heroic achievement of 32-year- old Roy Benavidez was one of the most astonishing feats of the Vietnam War. Hospitalized for more than a year, he refused to accept any praise saying, “No, that’s duty.” His commander thought Benavidez would not live long enough for the processing of the Medal of Honor, therefore only recommended the Distinguished Service Cross. It would take years for the wrong to be corrected.
On Feb. 24, 1981, President Ronald Reagan presented Raul P. Benavidez the Congressional Medal of Honor. He accepted our nations’ highest military honor still carrying two pieces of shrapnel in his heart and a punctured lung.
Benavidez’s suggestion to young people: “An education is the key to success. Bad habits and bad company will ruin you.”
His fatherly guidance to his son Noel: “Never bring shame on our family name.”
All three of his children are college graduates. In an unprecedented honor by the U.S. Navy, the Bob Hopeclass roll on roll off vehicle cargo ship, the USNS Benavidez is named for an Army sergeant.
Scuttlebutt has it that when Special Forces men are in a tough scrap going badly or courage needs to be summoned, they use the radio call sign Tango Mike Mike; Roy Benavidez’s call sign.
Medal of Honor recipient Roy Benavidez died on Nov. 19, 1998 at the age of 63 from respiratory failure and complications of diabetes. He was buried with full military honors at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.
Pete Mecca — Vietnam veteran, columnist, and freelance writer. Contact Pete at firstname.lastname@example.org Visit his website at aveteransstory.us.
Roy Benavidez was presented the Congressional Medal of Honor on Feb. 1981 by President Reagan.