Medal of Honor re­cip­i­ent’s heroic tale

The Covington News - - The second front -

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 avet­er­ansstory@gmail.com Visit his web­site at avet­er­ansstory.us.

Roy Be­navidez was pre­sented the Con­gres­sional Medal of Honor on Feb. 1981 by Pres­i­dent Rea­gan.

PETE MECCA COLUM­NIST

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