War hero says he'd do it again Vietnam veteran speaks at visiting display of memorial wall replica.

June 17, 1991|By Edward L. Heard Jr. | Edward L. Heard Jr.,Evening Sun Staff

The big-screen heroics of John Rambo may be fiction, but for green beret Roy Benavidez the horror of the Vietnam War was a reality, hardly the stuff of reminiscence over a bucket of popcorn and a Coke.

Unlike Sylvester Stallone, Roy Benavidez had no fall guy -- no stunt man -- to endure the 57 wounds he received in one six-hour nightmare of hand-to-hand combat.

"You've never lived until you've almost died," said Benavidez, a retired Special Forces sergeant and the last man to receive the Medal of Honor, America's highest award for a combat soldier.

Benavidez spoke to veterans and their families yesterday at Meadowridge Memorial Park on Washington Boulevard to honor those who served in the Vietnam War.

They viewed a 240-foot replica of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, a granite wall engraved with the names of the more than 58,000 Americans who died in the conflict.

Called the "Vietnam Wall Experience," the three-day event began Friday and attracted more than 10,000 people. It is designed to give citizens throughout the country easy access to the memorial, said Les Lowther, Meadowridge's general manager and coordinator of the event.

Lowther said the wall will be moved to Philadelphia next, then to Dayton, Ohio, as part of a 100-city national tour. The wall was made by Habitat Inc., an Arizona fabricator, for Service Corporation International, the world's largest cemetery company. Meadowridge Park is owned by SCI, Lowther said.

All weekend people hugged, took pictures, donned their military uniforms and waved American flags. Some kissed the wall and traced names from it. Others laid flowers along the wall or on familiar graves.

But yesterday, visitors heard the story of Benavidez, who dropped into Cambodia on May 2, 1968, on a special mission to retrieve secret intelligence material and help a handful of other green berets and friendly South Vietnamese fighters surrounded more than 350 North Vietnamese.

In a wild firefight in which he was shot, stabbed and clubbed, Benavidez fought off North Vietnamese troops, recovered the classified material and directed the recovery of 17 men, including the green berets, downed helicopter crewmen and three North Vietnamese he inadvertently loaded into the rescue chopper.

Friends said that when Benavidez, bleeding profusely, boarded the helicopter, he was holding his intestines in one hand and firing at the enemy with the other.

At the hospital, they said, Benavidez, his eyes crusted shut with blood, was nearly mistaken for dead and was being zipped into a body bag when he spat in the doctor's face to prove he was alive.

Although his heroism occurred in 1968, it took 13 years for Benavidez to receive the Medal of Honor, largely because only one eyewitness to his heroics survived the war. He received the medal from President Reagan on Feb. 24, 1981.

Benavidez never fully recovered from his wounds. Sitting in one spot too long still causes him pain, which intensifies in heat like yesterday's 100-degree temperature. And the bullets that remain inside his body often trip airport metal detectors.

Benavidez said the experience taught him how to have faith, determination and a positive attitude.

"There'll never be enough paper to print money or enough gold in Fort Knox to stop me from doing what I did again," he said.

The war in Iraq, he said, has made it easier for Vietnam veterans.

"This country has made 180-degree turn toward patriotism, thanks to those who fought in the Middle East," he said. "Because of them we are now surfacing."

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