Tag Archives: vietnam

Roy Benavidez

In case you don’t know, Veterans’ Day used to be Armistice Day. It was chosen as 11/11 because that’s when the World War I shooting stopped, which is why it is such an important part of Commonwealth life as well, and why it rains poppies (“…in Flanders fields…”) in nearly every Anglophone country.

While many Americans (and citizens/residents of other countries who celebrate their veterans) will take time to thank a lot of people for service, and this is a good thing,  I’d like to pick one veteran and tell you his story. It went far too long with insufficient recognition.

His name was MSG Roy Benavidez, and he entered the U.S. Army from his native Texas.

On 2 May 1968, a Special Forces A-team was doing some recon near Lộc Ninh, Republic of Vietnam. Unfortunately for them, the Vietnam People’s Army (North Vietnamese) had effective control of the area, and the SF team got in serious trouble. Surrounded and under heavy fire, they called for extraction (“get our asses out of here”). Three helicopters couldn’t reach their position due to the intense ground fire. They came back shot up, birds and crews alike.

Benavidez decided that wasn’t the end of it. You couldn’t make this stuff up. He grabbed a bag of medical supplies and a knife, boarded one of the helicopters and rode toward the scene. He had the helicopter land him some distance away from the SF team, then infiltrated past the VPA. They shot him in the face, leg and head in the process. When he reached the A-team, it was trashed: everyone WIA or KIA, but the wounded were still fighting. (SF quits real hard, as many of its adversaries have learned to their great unhappiness.) Benavidez got the wounded into better positions from which to defend, popped smoke and prepared to load the survivors onto a helicopter.

That didn’t work out worth a damn. He managed to drag some of the wounded onto the helicopter; as he went back for the A-team leader’s body, Benavidez’s problems multiplied. Not only did he take small arms fire and grenade fragments to the body–remember, he was already shot up–a VPA rifleman shot the helicopter pilot dead, crashing it. (I presume it was ‘light on the skids,’ so it didn’t fall far enough to kill everyone inside.) Benavidez got the survivors back out, set up another perimeter and gave them aid while directing their defense. They were probably outnumbered about 50-1, give or take.

Next, Benavidez started calling in airstrikes and gunships. He continued directing all the fire, doctoring the wounded and getting further wounded himself. Another helicopter landed to extract the A-team, and Benavidez began hauling them aboard. While doing this, a VPA soldier clubbed him from behind. Benavidez paused to kill him, obtaining some more wounds in the process. A couple of enemy rushed the helicopter, so he killed them too. He made one last trip back to the position for the rest of the wounded, by which time he was pretty near dead himself. He then let the aircrew haul him aboard the helicopter, and everyone booked out of there. It had taken six hours, and Benavidez had thirty-seven separate wounds from shrapnel, bayonets and bullets. That’s a Mansonian level of punishment to absorb.

When the helicopter landed back at whatever base or hospital, Benavidez looked dead enough that Army medics were trying to zip him into a body bag. Without much strength left to move, Benavidez spat in the medic’s face. Seriously. They stopped trying to body-bag him. I would have stopped too. I’d have been very concerned that he would find a way to rip the bag open and strangle me with it.

MSG Benavidez survived those wounds. The Army awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross, our second highest decoration and one they don’t pass out like candy. He retired in 1976. His former comrades, however, would not let the matter rest. If Benavidez’s heroism wasn’t worthy of the Medal of Honor, then what on earth must one do in order to deserve the thing? Based on testimony from the limited number of surviving eyewitnesses, on 24 May 1981–as I was dealing with senioritis and starting to get really excited and scared about college–President Reagan hung the Medal of Honor around MSG Roy Benavidez’s neck. About time.

Benavidez passed away in 1998. He was 63.

Gracias, Sargento Mayor, para su servicio pundonoroso y valiente. No olvidaremos a Ud.


Fred Phelps and the anti-Vietnam War movement

Today I was reading that the Supreme Court upheld Fred Phelps’ right to picket and harass military funerals, part of their KKK-esque anti-gay crusade.  I don’t have a firm opinion about what the Supreme Court should have done, partly because I don’t have J.D. after my name and I understand my limits of understanding, partly because I don’t have any respect for the SC to begin with, and partly because I have zero faith in law and the rule of law anyway.  But having seen Team Fred in action from 40′ away myself, and being nearer fifty years old than forty, it did bring to mind one thing.

In our time, the military is openly, publicly and loudly glorified and adored; even a hint of anti-military scorn would get one a lot of angry reactions.  If you are young today, you never knew a time when the military was unfashionable.  I assure you that there was such a time:  my own youth.  Numerous reliable sources relate experiencing verbal abuse and degradation just for being in uniform, and especially for getting off the plane from Vietnam.  Evidently it was so common it came to be expected, coped with by service people, and socially accepted to a degree.  Which is not to say that the soldiers suffering it were unhurt by it; oh, no.  It did at least tip them off to the kind of reaction society had in store for them.  I was too young to have a view on this, but old enough to know of the social current.  It lasted into the early 1980s, when I did put on a uniform a few times and get some small tastes of it myself.  Imagine a ROTC unit that tended to de-emphasize uniformed presence on campus just to avoid stirring stuff up? I was in one.

Now, I am not sure that anti-Vietnam protesters ever picketed or disrupted an actual military funeral.  We have general consensus that disrupting anyone’s funeral is disgusting, at any time for any reason.  A lot of people found ways to oppose the Vietnam War without insulting Special Forces guys as “baby killer” in airports; fair enough.  (Some people are uncomfortable with homosexuality, too, yet don’t approve of Phelps on any level.)  But how different were the two extremes, really? How different were the fanatics in the airports, heaping scorn on some poor sod who got drafted and sent to the 1st Cav, survived and graduated, and then wanted to come home and get back to normal, from the Phelpsites I saw in a vacant lot in Pasco holding up signs advocating more military casualties? Fred Phelps and the airport harassers had more in common than I’ve heard anyone attest.  Motivated by pure hate, both asserted the right to pour verbal abuse on targets who could not effectively fight back.  The only difference today is that it’s no longer fashionable to abuse the military.  Sadly, if Phelps had stuck to just disrupting funerals of AIDS deceased, there would be nowhere near the backlash against him, even though his conduct would be just as contemptible.

I sit, and I watch, and I marvel how social currents change people’s ethical compasses without most people noticing.

© 2011, J.K. Kelley

Addendum, nine years later: I read these words from my past in light of four years’ concerted effort to remove all democracy from our republic, and I think this: If a client had come to me in my capacity as an editor, presenting me with speculative fiction like the past five years, I would have had serious misgivings about it. I look back now and see a wannabe dictator mocking a POW veteran and not losing many supporters, and I see just how variable people’s ethical compasses truly are. And it confirms my belief that a fluid ethical compass is no ethical compass at all.