What a Hero Looks Like

Yesterday was Veterans Day. This post is dedicated to all who have served their country in the United States military, and in particular to one who, by his service, can only be called a hero. It is not often that one knows a bona fide hero, but I am one of the privileged few. This soft-spoken man with an easy wit, was a member of a parish I served in Laurel, Maryland. Here is his awesome story.

Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Rascon

Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Rascon

With his Army uniform aglow with ribbons and his eyes trained on the floor, Alfred “Doc” Rascon seemed embarrassed to be at the White House on that Tuesday in 2000, receiving lavish praise – much less receiving America’s highest military honor.

Only after President Clinton draped the Medal of Honor around his neck did a smile play across Rascon’s face. He had glanced at the men he covered with his body in a Vietnamese jungle thirty-four years earlier to absorb grenade blasts and shrapnel that would have killed them and most assuredly killed him.

“The honor is not really mine,” Rascon said. “It ends up being those who were with me that day.” Rascon, forever affectionately known as “Doc” to his fellow soldiers, in an Army dress uniform, asked his eight platoon mates at the ceremony to stand, and several responded with a misty-eyed, thumbs-up salute. “What you see before you is common valor that was done every day,” Rascon said. “I’m deeply grateful to be here.” The former Army medic then accepted his medal and smartly saluted the commander-in-chief who presented it.

It was a glorious moment, long denied to Rascon, the son of Mexican immigrants, who joined the Army out of love for his adopted country. He was not yet a United States citizen when he went to Vietnam, but when he returned to Vietnam later in the war, it was as an American citizen.

“On that distant day, in that faraway place, this man gave everything he had, utterly and selflessly, to protect his platoon mates and the nation he was still not yet a citizen of,” President Clinton said. The President continued, “You have honored us by your choice to become an American…Thank you for reminding us that being an American has nothing to do with the place of your birth, the color of your skin, the language of your parents, or the way you worship God… it comes straight from the heart,” Clinton said. “And your heart, sir, is an extraordinary gift to your country. Under any circumstances, a Medal of Honor ceremony is an event of great importance,” Clinton told the East Room audience packed with military leaders, Cabinet secretaries and members of Congress, as well as Rascon’s wife, Carol, and their children, Amanda and Alan. “Today it is especially so, for the rare quality of heroism on display that long-ago day in 1966 [and] for the long, patient wait for recognition.”

Alfred Velazquez Rascon, now a retired United States Army lieutenant colonel, was born in Chihuahua, Mexico on 10 September 1945, the only child of Alfredo and Andrea Rascon. The Rascon family, in search of a better way of life, imigrated to the United States. They settled in Oxnard, California, where Rascon received his primary and secondary education. There was no money for college, so Rascon badgered his parents to sign an age waiver and let him enlist in the Army at seventeen. Though not citizens, Rascon and his family were legal permanent residents, and he had always thought of himself as an American. This was how he could pay his country back.

After finishing jump school and being trained as a medic, Rascon was sent to Okinawa in 1964 to join the 173rd Airborne Brigade, created the previous year as a fire brigade for Southeast Asia. In May 1965, it was the first Army combat unit sent to South Vietnam.

For Rascon – at nineteen, a kid like the other paratroopers – there was no foreboding, only excitement. Almost immediately, the 173rd was engaged in deadly search-and-destroy missions, and Rascon’s unit – the reconnaissance platoon for the headquarters company of the 1st Battalion, 503rd Regiment – was in the thick of it.

In March 1966, the 173rd was launched on Operation Silver City, a helicopter assault aimed at clearing the enemy from an area near the Song Be River in Long Khanh Province in South Vietnam.

The platoon awoke March 16 to the sounds of a massive firefight in the distance. The brigade’s 2nd Battalion had been surrounded by a reinforced North Vietnamese Army regiment and was being attacked from all directions. The fighting was desperate. According to some accounts, the North Vietnamese Army chained machine gunners to trees to ensure that they would fight to the death.

The 1st Battalion was sent to assist, and the recon platoon hurried toward the battle. After several hours, Ray Compton, the squad sergeant and point man, brought the recon platoon to a halt. Through the thick jungle, he had spotted enemy soldiers about twenty yards ahead, nearly close enough to shake their hands. They were North Vietnamese Army regulars, wearing dark green uniforms with khaki pants and pith helmets. Compton reported the possible ambush to the platoon commander.

Pfc. Neil Haffey was ordered to fire his grenade launcher at the North Vietnamese Army position. The North Vietnamese responded with a ferocious barrage from machine guns and rifle grenades. To Haffey, it looked like it was raining fire.

Rascon could hear cries for a medic from up front, about twenty-five yards in front of the main body of the platoon. Rascon started forward and kept going despite calls from Sgt. 1st Class Jacob Cooke, the platoon commander: “Stay down and keep out of the way, Doc, or you’re going to get killed.”

As he edged forward, Rascon saw that Pfc. William Thompson, a machine gunner, had been hit and was lying exposed on a trail next to his M-60 machine gun and two boxes of extra ammo. Rascon reached Thompson and lay behind him, unable to get to his wounds. He could feel Thompson quivering as he was hit again by enemy fire.

Rascon crawled over Thompson, putting his own body in the path of the incoming fire. Almost immediately, Rascon was hit by shrapnel from a grenade. Then he felt a stinging pain, as if someone were slapping him. A bullet had hit him in the hip, ripped through him parallel to his spine and come out by his shoulder blade. Rascon dragged Thompson off the trail, but by the time they reached the cover of the jungle, Thompson was dead.

Behind him, Rascon could hear Pfc. Larry Gibson, the other machine gunner, yelling that he was running out of ammunition. Gibson was bleeding, and Rascon crawled over to check him. “Get the hell out of here, Doc. I’m okay,” Gibson said.

But the wounded medic moved forward to Thompson’s dead body. Rascon grabbed two bandoliers of machine gun bullets from Thompson’s chest and brought them to Gibson, who was able to resume life-saving covering fire.

As Rascon searched for more soldiers to treat, a grenade exploded in front of him, throwing shrapnel in his face. Seconds later, another grenade ripped his mouth open.

“Oh, my God, my face is gone,” Rascon thought. He could see blood spurting out, and it scared him. But he calmed himself. “You’ve got to take care of your people,” he thought.

Rascon saw Haffey get hit, and then several grenades landed near him.

Haffey saw the grenades, too, and resigned himself to death. Then he felt a body on top of him. It was Doc. The grenades exploded, and Rascon took the blast. Rascon could hardly walk, and the pain was intense, but it seemed irrelevant. He began treating Haffey’s bullet wound. “Neil, you’re going to be okay,” Rascon said. “Everything’s fine. We’re all going to make it.”

Compton had seen Rascon jump on top of Haffey and catch the blast. He knew they both must have been killed. But suddenly Rascon was next to him, examining Compton’s wounds. Then he felt Rascon’s weight on top of him, knocking him to the ground.

Rascon had spotted another grenade coming in and had jumped on top of Compton. The medic had lost his hearing and was bleeding from the ears and nose. Rascon started to check Compton’s condition. The sergeant was incredulous. “Get your ass to the back, Doc,” Compton gasped.

Rascon instead turned to Thompson’s machine gun, still lying in the trail with two boxes of ammunition. North Vietnamese Army soldiers were inching toward it. Haffey saw a blur run by; it was Doc. He was back on the trail, exposed to enemy fire, dragging the machine gun and ammunition off the trail so another soldier could take them. With the additional firepower, the tide turned. The North Vietnamese Army broke off the fight, and the jungle grew quiet again.

Rascon treated the wounded until others forcibly dragged him back. They reached a clearing zone, where the wounded and dead were being flown out in helicopters. Rascon’s arms were draped over the shoulders of two soldiers. Rascon noticed a photographer coming toward him. He did not want to be embarrassed. “I’m going to walk,” Rascon told the soldiers. Rascon walked two or three steps, then fell back in the arms of his fellow soldiers.

Specialist Alfred Rascon (center) who was hit four times saving the wounded men of his unit, is helped toward a waiting helicopter. [photo: Tim Page]

Specialist Alfred Rascon (center) who was hit four times saving the wounded men of his unit, is helped toward a waiting helicopter. [photo: Tim Page]

“Common valor was a common-day issue there every day, especially on that day,” Rascon says.  “Everybody was a hero, because everyone was doing whatever they had to do to try to save their friends. It has nothing to do with me. It’s just a matter of me doing what I had to do that day, like any other day. It just so happens it was a bad day,” says the quiet-spoken hero.

But those who saw Rascon’s actions that day had no doubt that he merited the Medal of Honor.

“It did not surprise me, because that was Doc,” said Gibson. “What surprised me was that he lived through it.”

Compton recommended Rascon for the medal within days of the action, but in the confusion of the escalating war, it was not advanced up the chain of command. Instead, Rascon received the Silver Star.

Rascon was evacuated to Japan and underwent months of treatment for wounds that pain him even to this day. In May, 1966, he was honorably discharged from active duty and placed in the Army Reserves. The next year, he became a Naturalized United States Citizen.

He went to Officer Training School, earning a commission as an officer, and rejoined the Army in 1969, volunteering in 1972 for a second tour in Vietnam as an adviser. After leaving the Army, Rascon settled in Laurel, Maryland in 1983 and began a law enforcement career with various Justice Department agencies. It was not until the early 1990s, when he began contacting his old platoon mates, that Rascon learned he had been nominated for the Medal of Honor.

During a reunion of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Rascon’s comrades discovered that he never received the Medal of Honor. His former platoon members Ray Compton, Neil Haffey and Larry Gibson, whose lives he saved, sought to correct the oversight and renewed their efforts for of a Medal of Honor for Rascon. The Pentagon would not reconsider Rascon’s case because so much time had elapsed. Rascon’s comrades then sought the help of Congressman Lane Evans from Illinois. In 1997, Evans delivered to President Bill Clinton a packet containing the information about Rascon. The President then convinced the Pentagon to reopen the case.

And so it was, on 8 February 2000 – thirty-four years after that fateful day in 1966 – President Bill Clinton finally bestowed upon Rascon the Medal of Honor in a ceremony held in the East Room of the White House.

Part of the citation for Rascon’s Medal of Honor reads: “Specialist Rascon’s extraordinary valor in the face of deadly enemy fire, his heroism in rescuing the wounded, and his gallantry by repeatedly risking his own life for his fellow soldiers are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.”

Colonel Alfred Rascon, every American should salute you. I know that I do. You are truly an American hero. You are what a hero looks like. I am deeply honored to know you.

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