Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Roy Benavidez
United States Army

Raul (Roy) Perez Benavidez (August 5, 1935 - November 29, 1998) was a member of the highly classified Studies and Observations Group of the United States Army. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in eastern Cambodia on May 2, 1968.

Childhood and early life
Raul (Roy) Perez Benavidez was born on August 5, 1935 in Lindenau near Cuero, Texas in DeWitt County. His parents were of Mexican and Yaqui Indian descent. At the age of two, Benavidez's father died from tuberculosis and his mother remarried. At the age 7, Benavidez's mother died, also from tuberculosis, leaving Roy and his younger brother Roger to move to El Campo, where they lived with their grandfather, uncle, and aunt, along with eight cousins whom he was raised with as his brothers and sisters.

During Benavidez's adolescent years in El Campo, he shined shoes at the local bus station, worked on various farms in Texas and Colorado, and worked at a tire shop in El Campo. He was enrolled in school sporadically, but by the age of 15 he dropped out in order to work full-time to help support his family.

Military career
In 1952, Benavidez joined the Texas National Guard, and in June 1955 he enlisted in the regular United States Army. Benavidez married Hilaria "Lala" Coy in 1959. That same year, Roy completed airborne training, and was posted to the 82nd Airborne Division at
Fort Bragg. In 1965 he was sent to Vietnam, where he was made an advisor to an ARVN infantry unit. While serving with the Vietnamese, Benavidez stepped on a land mine and was evacuated back to the United States, where he was told by military doctors at Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) that he would never walk again. Despite his severe spinal injury, Benavidez walked out of BAMC under his own power in July 1966, his wife at his side.

Later that year, Benavidez returned to Fort Bragg to begin training for the elite Studies and Observations Group (SOG). Despite the agonizing pain caused by his back injury, he became a member of the 5th Special Forces Group and was reposted to Vietnam in January 1968. On the morning of May 2, 1968, a reconnaissance squad under Benavidez's command was surprised and quickly overwhelmed by NVA and Viet Cong troops in the area.

Benavidez voluntarily boarded an evacuation helicopter bound for the hot zone, and once there "distinguished himself by a series of daring and extremely glorious 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." (see medal citation below)

Sergeant Benavidez received the Distinguished Service Cross in 1968. After the May 2 action, he was evacuated back to BAMC where he would recover from his wounds. In 1973, after more detailed accounts of what had happened became available, Special Forces commander Lieutant Colonel Ralph R. Drake insisted that Benavidez receive the Medal of Honor. By then, however, the window of time in which to bestow the medal had expired. An appeal to Congress by a Texas congressman and a representative of the Army created an exemption for Benavidez's case, but every time it was reviewed by the Army Decorations Board, the Medal of Honor was denied. The Decorations Board required an eyewitness account from a squad member who was on the ground during the action, but to Benavidez's knowledge, no other soldiers were left alive who had been at the "Six Hours in Hell."

In 1980, Brian O'Connor, a radioman in Benavidez's unit, provided the Army with a ten-page account of the events of his patrol. This report was the final piece of evidence necessary to convince the Army to award the Medal of Honor to Benavidez. O'Connor had been severely injured (Benavidez had believed him dead), and was evacuated from Vietnam before his superiors could fully debrief him. O'Connor only learned that Benavidez was alive by chance - he had been living in the Fiji Islands and was on holiday in Australia when he read a newspaper story about Benavidez, published by Roy's hometown paper in El Campo. The story had been picked up by the international press and found its way to Australia, where it was read by O'Connor. When O'Connor saw the story he was amazed to learn that Sergeant Benavidez had survived his wounds. He soon contacted his old friend in Texas. Shortly thereafter he submitted his account, confirming the previous accounts already accumulated by others and providing the one element that had been missing - an American eyewitness on the ground. Soon thereafter, Roy Benavidez received his Medal of Honor.

On February 24, 1981, President Ronald Reagan presented Benavidez with the Medal of Honor. As he awarded the medal to Benavidez, Reagan reportedly turned to the gathered press and said: "If the story of his heroism were a movie script, you would not believe it", whereupon he read the official citation.

Benavidez is one of 43 Hispanic Americans to have received the Medal of Honor, out of 3,447 recipients since the decoration was established in 1861.

Medal of Honor citation
Master Sergeant (then Staff Sergeant) Roy P. Benavidez United States Army, who distinguished himself by a series of daring and extremely valorous actions on 2 May 1968 while assigned to Detachment B56, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces, Republic of Vietnam. On the morning of 2 May 1968, a 12-man Special Forces Reconnaissance Team was inserted by helicopters in a dense jungle area west of Loc Ninh, Vietnam to gather intelligence information about confirmed large-scale enemy activity. This area was controlled and routinely patrolled by the North Vietnamese Army. After a short period of time on the ground, the team met heavy enemy resistance, and requested emergency extraction. Three helicopters attempted extraction, but were unable to land due to intense enemy small arms and anti-aircraft fire. Sergeant Benavidez was at the Forward Operating Base in Loc Ninh monitoring the operation by radio when these helicopters returned to off-load wounded crewmembers and to assess aircraft damage. Sergeant Benavidez voluntarily boarded a returning aircraft to assist in another extraction attempt. Realizing that all the team members were either dead or wounded and unable to move to the pickup zone, he directed the aircraft to a nearby clearing where he jumped from the hovering helicopter, and ran approximately 75 meters under withering small arms fire to the crippled team. Prior to reaching the team's position he was wounded in his right leg, face, and head. Despite these painful injuries, he took charge, repositioning the team members and directing their fire to facilitate the landing of an extraction aircraft, and the loading of wounded and dead team members. He then threw smoke canisters to direct the aircraft to the team's position. Despite his severe wounds and under intense enemy fire, he carried and dragged half of the wounded team members to the awaiting aircraft. He then provided protective fire by running alongside the aircraft as it moved to pick up the remaining team members. As the enemy's fire intensified, he hurried to recover the body and classified documents on the dead team leader. When he reached the leader's body, Sergeant Benavidez was severely wounded by small arms fire in the abdomen and grenade fragments in his back. At nearly the same moment, the aircraft pilot was mortally wounded, and his helicopter crashed. Although in extremely critical condition due to his multiple wounds, Sergeant Benavidez secured the classified documents and made his way back to the wreckage, where he aided the wounded out of the overturned aircraft, and gathered the stunned survivors into a defensive perimeter. Under increasing enemy automatic weapons and grenade fire, he moved around the perimeter distributing water and ammunition to his weary men, reinstilling in them a will to live and fight. Facing a buildup of enemy opposition with a beleaguered team, Sergeant Benavidez mustered his strength, began calling in tactical air strikes and directed the fire from supporting gunships to suppress the enemy's fire and so permit another extraction attempt. He was wounded again in his thigh by small arms fire while administering first aid to a wounded team member just before another extraction helicopter was able to land. His indomitable spirit kept him going as he began to ferry his comrades to the craft. On his second trip with the wounded, he was clubbed with additional wounds to his head and arms before killing his adversary. He then continued under devastating fire to carry the wounded to the helicopter. Upon reaching the aircraft, he spotted and killed two enemy soldiers who were rushing the craft from an angle that prevented the aircraft door gunner from firing upon them. With little strength remaining, he made one last trip to the perimeter to ensure that all classified material had been collected or destroyed, and to bring in the remaining wounded. Only then, in extremely serious condition from numerous wounds and loss of blood, did he allow himself to be pulled into the extraction aircraft. Sergeant Benavidez' 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. His fearless personal leadership, tenacious devotion to duty, and extremely valorous actions in the face of overwhelming odds were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service, and reflect the utmost credit on him and the United States Army

Despite the severe life-threatening injuries Sergeant Benavidez sustained in Vietnam, he continued his service with the Army and was later assigned to posts at Fort Riley, Kansas; Fort Devens, Massachusetts; and Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where in August 1976 he received an honorable discharge and retired from the United States Army as a Master Sergeant.

Upon his retirement, Benavidez, his wife, and their three children returned to El Campo, Texas.

After receiving the Medal of Honor, Roy devoted the remainder of his life to the youth of America and speak to them about the importance of staying in school and receiving an education. Roy's message, "An education is the key to success. Bad habits and bad company will ruin you," was simple and people listened.

In 1983, Benavidez came forward to say that the Social Security Administration planned to cut off disability payments he had been receiving since his retirement, as well as the disability payments for thousands of Veterans. He went to Capitol Hill on behalf of his fellow Veterans and pleaded with the Select Committee on Aging convincing them to rescind from making these changes which they eventually honored.

As the years went by, Roy was in great demand to speak to members serving in all branches of the United States Armed Forces, schools, military and civic groups, and small to large businesses. He traveled across the United States and abroad to foreign countries such as, Greece, Panama, Korea, and Japan where he had the pleasure of visiting our military personnel stationed in these countries and going out in the field with them for their field exercises. He was honored throughout the country and received letters from students, service personnel, and citizens throughout the world.

Benavidez penned two autobiographical books related to his life and military experience. In 1986, he published The Three Wars of Roy Benavidez, which described his struggles growing up as a Mexican-American youth, his military training and combat in Vietnam, and the efforts by others to get recognition for his actions in Vietnam. Benavidez later wrote Medal of Honor: A Vietnam Warrior's Story in 1995.

On the afternoon of November 29, 1998, Roy P. Benavidez died at Brooke Army Medical Center from complications of diabetes. Two days after his passing, Roy's body was escorted back to El Campo one more time for one final worship at St. Robert Belleramine's Catholic Church. This is the church where in 1959 he married his beloved Lala, where his three children were married, where he would worship on Sundays, and where since his passing all of his grandchildren have received the Sacrament of Baptism.

After a final good-bye in El Campo, Roy's body returned to Ft. Sam Houston's Main Chapel where another viewing would take place. On the morning of December 3, now retired Archbishop Patrick Flores of the San Antonio Dioceses presided over the Catholic mass for Roy's funeral at San Fernando Cathedral located in downtown San Antonio, Texas. Afterward, Roy was buried with full military honors at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.

Roy enjoyed his life in the rural community of El Campo, Texas.