Right Opinion

Freedom And Your Duty

Roy Exum · Jul. 31, 2010

On August 5 the people of Tennessee will exercise one of our nation’s most important freedoms – the right to vote – and it is ironic that same day is when those who remember will celebrate the birthday of Roy Benavidez. The son of a Mexican sharecropper and a Yaqui Indian, Roy’s parents died before he was seven years old and his early years in south Texas were both brutal and filled with anguish.

When he would attend elementary school, the other children would laugh at his tattered clothes and call him “the dumb Mexican.” It didn’t help that he made his nickels shining shoes at the bus station in El Campo, where he shared a nearby tar-paper shack with his grandfather, his aunt and uncle, and 11 other children.

He dropped out of school for good at age 15, this is order to work and help support the family. But in 1952, when America was at war with Korea, he enlisted in the Texas Army National Guard right after his 17th birthday. This is about duty, just so you’ll know.

Two years later, now with a GED diploma, he enlisted in the United States Army and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne out of Fort Bragg. In 1965 he was sent to South Viet Nam as an advisor and while there stepped on a hidden landmine. He was airlifted to Brooke Army Medical Center, where he was told he would never walk again.

In July of 1966 he walked out of the hospital and, now immensely popular and proud, he used his glib tongue to talk his way all the way back to Viet Nam, where things had heated up considerably. Despite the constant pain from his still-healing shattered spine, Roy had even talked his way into the 5th Special Forces Group and in early 1968 he was sent to southeast Asia. He was that intent on doing his duty.

It was there that we learn, on May 2, a radio crackled in the camp and carried the screams, “Get us out of here! For God’s sake, get us out!” It seems that three Green Berets and nine Nung tribesman who were monitoring enemy troop movements near the Cambodian border were surrounded by an entire North Vietnamese battalion.

The firefight was so intense that three helicopters were turned away and just before a fourth chopper lifted off from Loc Ninh, “the dumb Mexican” dove into the open cargo door carrying with him only a medic’s bag and a Bowie knife.

The battle was soon even worse and the helicopter couldn’t put down. That’s when “the guy with the bad back,” who had been told only two years before he would never walk again, promptly jumped about 10 or 15 feet into what would become legendary in military circles as “six hours in hell.”

So you will be certain I am not making this up, let’s peek inside his “jacket” (military file) and read the official wording of one citation later awarded to Master Sergeant (then Staff Sergeant) Roy P. Benavidez:

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. Sgt. 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.

Sgt. 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, Sgt. 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, Sgt. 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, re-instilling in them a will to live and fight. Facing a buildup of enemy opposition with a beleaguered team, Sgt. 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 from 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.

But I’m not through. Roy Benavidez was shot, stabbed and hit by heavy shrapnel 37 times that day in battle. His face was so badly crushed he could neither see nor talk. When he was declared dead and being put in a body bag, he had to spit – yes, spit a stream of blood – for the doctor to see he was still alive.

When he could finally speak, some weeks later, they asked him about his heroism and he simply said, “I was doing my duty.”

It was then 15 years after that, just after an “elected official” had cancelled his disability benefits, that word of his valor got to President Reagan. His benefits were instantly restored and the “commendation” you read was what President Reagan said when Sgt. Benavidez was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Today there are elementary schools in San Antonio and Dallas that are named in his honor. He is a huge legend in Texas and, before he died from a diabetes complication in 1968, he spoke often on courage, racism, love of country, and duty. There is even a U.S. Navy ship that bears the name of “the dumb Mexican.”

If he were still alive, he could tell us about duty. He wouldn’t care if you are Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, black or white, rich or poor – only that you would use the liberty and freedom he fought to preserve, to assure you could vote. Early voting continues in the state this week and then the general election is August 5, the day of Roy Benavidez’s birthday.

Somerset Maugham, who wrote the classic, “Of Human Bondage,” once said: “If a nation values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom; and the irony of it is that if it is comfort or money that it values more, it will lose that too.”

It’s time to do your duty.

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