For Vietnam veteran, an honor long delayed

Hero: Alfred V. Rascon never received the Medal of Honor for saving members of his platoon. But that may change soon.

May 29, 1999|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Thirty-three years after the bravest act of his life, Alfred V. Rascon might finally get the recognition many feel he deserves.

Legislation moving through Congress would allow the Vietnam War veteran, a resident of North Laurel in Howard County, to receive a Medal of Honor later this year for running into enemy fire and saving many of his fellow platoon members from certain death.

It is a scene that has replayed in his head almost every day for more than half his life: the dead soldiers, the sound of machine guns, the blood, the pain. And the urge to walk into the line of fire not once but three or four times to save his fellow soldiers.

The night after the battle, some of Rascon's comrades nominated him for the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award. But somehow -- nobody quite knows how -- the nomination fell through the cracks. Instead, Rascon received a Silver Star, the third-highest award for valor but one his fellow soldiers felt was inadequate.

When his platoon members found out several years ago that he had never received the Medal of Honor, they got to work. They eventually got the attention of a congressman, several senators, the secretary of the Army and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Soon, their efforts may pay off. Thursday, the Senate passed a bill that would allow Rascon to receive the medal. The House will likely pass a bill in the next 10 days or so; if it does, congressional officials say, President Clinton will likely sign it into law.

And then Rascon would not only receive the Medal of Honor, but reunite with his war comrades for the first time in more than three decades.

His reaction? A little bit of aw-shucks, a little bit of pleasure, and a little bit of fear that, at the ceremony, he might break down and cry.

"I've never been a hero, nor will I ever be a hero," he said. "I was just doing my job that day."

Rascon, 53, was born in Mexico and raised in Oxnard, Calif., in a working-class neighborhood. His parents, immigrants with no more than a second-grade education, both worked in packing houses, he said.

At age 17, he pressured his mother to let him enlist in the Army. After completion of airborne school, he was assigned as a medic to a battalion that ended up in Vietnam. His platoon members called him "Doc."

When he arrived in Vietnam in 1965, he was not even an American citizen; that occurred after the war. But he said that never mattered to him: "The fact is, this country has always been mine in my heart," he said.

A heady assignment

Nevertheless, it was a heady assignment for a 19-year-old, little more than a boy, to serve as medic in a reconnaissance platoon of 30 to 50 men.

"You basically are the savior of whoever you are with, and they depend on you and that's an emotional load to carry," he said. "You end up being the guardian angel of whoever."

On March 16, 1966, North Vietnamese soldiers ambushed Rascon and his platoon as they were walking down a well-used trail in the jungle northwest of Saigon.

When an American machine-gunner went down, Rascon, then 20, ignored orders to stay under cover in the jungle. He jumped onto the trail, amid an onslaught of enemy fire, to help the fallen soldier.

Although he was shot in the hip, Rascon dragged the solder off the trail, only to discover that he was dead.

Then he saw the soldier's M-60 machine gun lying on the trail. He again ran out into enemy fire and grenades to retrieve the gun and 400 rounds of ammunition.

Repeated efforts

Eyewitnesses say this act alone saved the platoon. Had the North Vietnamese gotten hold of the gun, they say, they could all easily have died.

But Rascon didn't stop there, even when a grenade fell near him and ripped open his face.

When he saw other grenades land near one of his platoon members, Neil Haffey, he tackled Haffey,shielding him. Then he ran back to some other wounded soldiers to provide medical aid.

When he saw still more grenades land near his squad leader, Sgt. Ray Compton, he dove on top of him.

Refuses morphine

Again he got up to aid his friends, refusing offers of morphine for his wounds.

"Boy, I'll tell you, he was shot to hell himself," said Master Sgt. Larry M. Gibson of University Place, Wash., a scout and machine-gunner in the platoon who works full-time for the Washington State National Guard. "And how he managed to do that is anybody's guess. It was an extreme effort on his part, very heroic, very gallant. I saw nothing braver."

Gibson said none of it surprised him: "Rascon was the medic," he said. "We were his boys, his troops, and he was going to care for us come hell or high water."

A war photographer, Tim Page, captured a picture of Rascon walking off the battlefield that day; he is drenched in sweat and blood and held up by a soldier on either side because he could not walk.

No visible scars

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