FORT POLK — In 1982, while serving at U.S. Army Field Station in San Antonio, Texas, I had the privilege — no, honor — of attending an NCO professional development session in which retired Master Sgt. Roy Benavidez, a Congressional Medal of Honor awardee, spoke.
The son of a Mexican-American farmer and Native American mother, Benavidez went to live with his grandfather, aunt and uncle after both parents died of tuberculosis, and then dropped out of school as a teenager to help support his family.
Benavidez joined the Texas Army National Guard in 1952 during the Korean War, and in 1955 transferred to active duty. He eventually completed airborne and special forces training and was assigned to 5th Special Forces Group.
While in South Vietnam as an advisor to a Vietnamese infantry regiment, Benavidez stepped on a land mine during a patrol. He was evacuated to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where his doctor concluded he would never walk again and began the process of medically discharging him.
Benavidez said when he saw flag burnings and media criticism of the U.S. military presence in Vietnam, he was motivated to walk again and return to military service.
As he told the group of NCOs attending that professional development session, “I began a nightly training ritual to learn to walk again. Even though the doctors told me to stay in bed, I’d get out each night and would crawl — using my elbows and chin — to a nearby wall, and would prop myself against the wall and attempt to lift myself unaided, starting by wiggling my toes, then my feet. I was able to eventually push myself up the wall to a standing position.”
After more than a year of hospitalization, Benavidez walked out of the hospital in July 1966. Despite continuing pain from his wounds, he returned to South Vietnam in January 1968.
The courage Benavidez showed in overcoming that injury would have been enough to label the El Campo, Texas, native an American hero. But it was his actions on May 2, 1968, that separated him from his fellow Soldiers.
That day a 12-man Special Forces patrol was surrounded by a North Vietnamese infantry battalion of about 1,000 men. Benavidez, who was at base camp, heard the men’s appeal for help over the radio and volunteered to be part of a helicopter team sent in to extract the overwhelmed Soldiers. Armed only with a knife, Benavidez jumped from the helicopter carrying his medical bag and ran to help the trapped patrol. His citation read, in part, Benavidez: “Distinguished himself by a series of daring and extremely valorous actions and because of his gallant choice to join voluntarily his comrades who were in critical straits, to expose himself constantly to withering enemy fire, and his refusal to be stopped despite numerous severe wounds, saved the lives of at least eight men.’
The severe wounds Benavidez received included: Seven major gunshot wounds, 28 shrapnel holes in his head, shoulder, buttocks, feet and legs, both arms slashed by a bayonet, right lung destroyed, and injuries to his mouth and the back of his head from being clubbed by a rifle butt. He was also shot in the back with an AK-47 and the bullet exited just beneath his heart.
When the battle was over and everyone evacuated, Benavidez was thought to be dead. As the doctor was about to zip up the body bag on the “deceased” Soldier, Benavidez regained consciousness and let them know he was still with them.
He was evacuated to Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Benavidez’s commander thought his Soldier deserved the Medal of Honor for his valor, but put him in for a Distinguished Service Cross because the process for awarding a Medal of Honor took a long time and the commander was sure Benavidez would die before he received the award.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. William Westmoreland presented the Distinguished Service Cross to Benavidez while he was recovering from his wounds at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
Benavidez eventually recovered from his injuries, once again proving doctors wrong. In 1981, after more detailed accounts became available and an eye witness corroboration from another survivor of that May 2 day, Benavidez’s Distinguished Service Cross was upgraded to a Medal of Honor.
After presenting Benavidez with the Medal of Honor, President Ronald Reagan turned to the reporters gathered for the ceremony and said, "If the story of his heroism were a movie script, you would not believe it.” Reagan then read the citation accompanying the award.
After Benavidez related his story to the group of NCOs I was with, there was not a dry eye in the house. Needless to say he received a standing ovation and spent as much time visiting with us after his speech as he did during the speech.
Benavidez died Nov. 29, 1998, at the age of 63, from complications related to his wounds.
Not often does one find himself in the presences of a true hero. On this day, I did. It was a humbling experience to realize this man was willing to give his all to save his fellow Soldiers. I think all of those who attended that NCOPD class learned what selfless sacrifice really meant.
I know I did.