Week of May 5
On May 2, 1968, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Roy P. Benavidez, serving with U.S. Special Forces near Lộc Ninh, earned the Medal of Honor with an astounding series of courageous actions, saving eight men from an ambush and a six hour firefight in which he himself was wounded six times.
Roy Benavidez was born in August 1935 in south Texas. Both his parents died when he was young, and his aunt and uncle adopted Roy and his brother. After dropping out of school, Benavidez joined the Texas National Guard and later enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1955. He eventually enrolled in Airborne school before joining the Special Forces.
Benavidez first went to Vietnam in 1965, where he was assigned as an adviser to a South Vietnamese infantry unit. Not long after his arrival, he stepped on a landmine, which paralyzed him from the waist down. Benavidez later recalled that he “woke up at Clark Air Force Base” in the Philippines, where doctors told him he would likely never walk again. Benavidez refused to accept this diagnosis, however. “I was determined to walk,” he later said. While recuperating in a hospital at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, prior a pending medical discharge, Benavidez secretly began slipping out of his bed and night and conducting his own physical therapy. Using his arms, elbows, and back, he pushed himself up the wall and worked to regain the use of his legs. After nine months, he had taught himself to walk again. Allowed to stay in the Army, Benavidez continued his rehabilitation until he could run, do pushups, and do parachute jumps once again. He then volunteered to go back to Vietnam.
Benavidez arrived in Vietnam for the second time in 1968, attached to 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces, at Lộc Ninh Forward Operating Base. On the morning of May 2, 1968, Staff Sergeant Benavidez was monitoring the radio at Lộc Ninh when he heard frantic calls from a 12-man reconnaissance team to the west that needed immediate extraction. Three Green Berets and nine Montagnard soldiers had been ambushed and surrounded by a force of North Vietnamese Army troops, and two extraction helicopters had already suffered severe damage from enemy fire during failed attempts to get the men out. When Benavidez ran out to meet the returning helicopters, he realized his friend, Sergeant First Class Leroy Wright, had been leading the reconnaissance team and was now caught in the ambush. According to Benavidez, Wright had recently saved his life, so he made a snap decision to help. “It was an instant reaction. I saw a bag of medical supplies and picked it up, went over … [and] got on the helicopter,” he later recalled.
When Benavidez’s helicopter reached the area, heavy North Vietnamese small arms fire continued to make reaching the besieged Special Forces team impossible. Benavidez instructed the pilot to hover close to the ground some distance away and let him out. When he jumped to the ground, Benavidez ran over 75 yards to the team’s location. While running through heavy fire, he was hit three times—in the face, the head, and the right leg—before he reached the men. Disregarding his wounds, he helped the survivors create a makeshift defensive perimeter, popped smoke to mark the location for the helicopter overhead, and began carrying the wounded, one-by-one, to the extraction point.
Benavidez managed to get most of the survivors onto the helicopter when suddenly it was hit by enemy fire, which killed the pilot and crashed the aircraft filled with wounded men. At that same moment, Benavidez was hit two more times, taking a bullet to his abdomen and shrapnel in his back.
Somehow, Benavidez remained undaunted. He proceeded to help the wounded men from the crashed helicopter and again set up a defensive perimeter. He quickly radioed the location of concentrations of North Vietnamese troops. For the next six hours Benavidez called in air strikes and helicopter gunships to prevent their position from being overrun, also doing his best to tend to the wounded and recover the dead while still bleeding profusely from his own wounds. As another extraction helicopter finally approached, Benavidez was shot a sixth time, again in the leg, while also being attacked by an onrushing North Vietnamese soldier, who clubbed Benavidez in the head with his rifle before the Green Beret managed to kill the attacker. With the help of furious covering fire from the helicopter’s door gunner, Benavidez managed to once again load all of the wounded and dead into the chopper. He recalled years later that he had been so intent on not leaving anyone behind that he had mistakenly loaded three dead enemy soldiers onto the helicopter as well. Finally he collapsed into the aircraft, nearly unconscious from blood loss. Benavidez saved the lives of eight men that day.
Benavidez took nearly a year to recover from his wounds. He was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions. In 1980, the Army finally located a witness to Benavidez’s exploits (a witness is required in order to receive the Medal of Honor). One of the Green Beret’s he saved that day, who in 1980 was living in Fiji, confirmed and corroborated Benavidez’s account. President Ronald Reagan presented him with the Medal of Honor on February 24, 1981.
Benavidez passed away in Texas in 1998, at the age of 63. Later in life he became an advocate for Veterans’ rights and benefits. In a speech in 1991 he said, “I’m asked hundreds of times: Would you do it over again? … There will never be enough paper to print the money [that would have kept me] from doing what I did. I’m proud to be an American.”1
1“Medal of Honor Recipients: Vietnam War,” Entry for Benavidez, Roy P., http://www.history.army.mil/moh/vietnam-a-l.html (accessed 5/3/16); Congressional Medal of Honor Society, Engtry for “Roy P. Benavidez,” http://www.cmohs.org/recipient-detail/3229/benavidez-roy-p.php (accessed 5/3/16); “Roy P. Benavidez, Recipient Of Medal of Honor, Dies at 63,” New York Times, December 4, 1998, http://www.nytimes.com/1998/12/04/us/roy-p-benavidez-recipient-of-medal-of-honor-dies-at-63.html (accessed 5/3/16); “Master Sargeant Roy P. Benavidez: The Story Behind the Medal of Honor Recipient,” American Rhetoric Online Speech Bank, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/roybenavidezmedalofhonorspeech.htm (accessed 5/3/16).