A belated honor for a war hero

Vietnam vet receives the Medal of Honor after a 34-year wait

February 09, 2000|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It took 34 years, but Alfred V. Rascon has finally received his due.

Yesterday, the North Laurel resident received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award for valor, for his bravery on March 16, 1966 -- the day he jumped into enemy fire not once but several times to rescue fellow platoon members.

At least six of Rascon's war comrades attended the afternoon ceremony at the White House. Before they flew in earlier this week, Rascon had not seen them for more than three decades, not since the day he risked his life to save theirs. Back then, they called him "Doc" -- he was their medic -- and looked up to him to keep them from harm.

The East Room of the White House, where yesterday's ceremony took place, was packed, not only with Rascon's platoon members but with high-ranking government officials, including Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Togo D. West Jr., Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Henry Shelton.

Also in attendance were Rascon's family -- his wife, Carol, and children Amanda and Allan -- as well as a number of senators and other Medal of Honor recipients.

"People like Alfred Rascon have kept our democracy alive all these years," said President Clinton before hanging the medal around Rascon's neck. "This man gave everything he had, utterly and selflessly."

Clinton said "thickets of red tape" kept Rascon from receiving the Medal of Honor years ago. He commended Rascon for his service both during the war -- when he was not even an American citizen -- and afterward.

Rascon remained stony-faced throughout much of the half-hour ceremony, back straight, staring straight ahead. Once he brought his hand to his face as if wiping away a tear.

"I am deeply grateful to be here," he said. He did not say much else during the ceremony, but in the days leading up to the event he said he was pleased that he would receive the long-awaited medal at last.

"I think it's a great honor," he said, "an honor not for myself, but for the individuals who were with me in Vietnam."

Rascon, 54, was born in Mexico and raised in Oxnard, Calif., the son of immigrant parents who worked in packing houses. He now works as inspector general for the Selective Service System in Arlington, Va.

He bears no visible scars from the war, but he said hardly a day goes by that he does not remember the events of March 16, 1966. That was the day North Vietnamese soldiers ambushed Rascon and his platoon as they walked down a well-traveled trail in the jungle northwest of Saigon. He described the ambush as "10 minutes of pure hell."

Among the first to fall that day was a machine gunner. The 20-year-old Rascon ran into enemy fire to help his comrade. He placed himself between the wounded soldier and gunfire, sustaining shrapnel wounds and a bullet wound to his hip. He dragged the soldier off the trail into safety -- only then discovering that the man was dead.

But Rascon was not through -- despite the pain from his injuries.

Spotting his dead comrade's M-60 machine gun lying in the trail, Rascon ran out again into enemy fire to retrieve the gun and 400 rounds of ammunition to prevent them from falling into the hands of the North Vietnamese -- an act that some say may have saved the lives of the entire platoon.

Another grenade exploded in front of him, spraying shrapnel into his face, but still he carried on.

As grenades continued to explode around him and his fellow platoon members, he threw himself on top of one soldier to absorb the shock of a grenade blast, and then, not long after, threw himself on top of yet another platoon member to protect him.

Once the fighting ended, Rascon treated and directed the evacuation of the wounded before collapsing from blood loss.

He was so severely wounded that he was administered last rites, Clinton said.

After that day, some of Rascon's platoon members nominated him for the Medal of Honor. For whatever reason -- perhaps because they were too sick and wounded to follow up, perhaps because of red tape -- the nomination fell through the cracks.

Instead, Rascon received a Silver Star.

When his fellow soldiers found out about seven or eight years ago that Rascon had not received the medal they thought he deserved, they were incredulous. And they set to work to have Rascon's Silver Star upgraded.

It was not an easy process -- in large part due to a federal law that says the Medal of Honor must be awarded within three years of the act of heroism. But Rascon's war buddies fought to have the time limitation waived so their friend could receive his due.

It took several years, but yesterday they finally achieved their goal.

Rascon has said he never felt bitter that he did not receive the award sooner. After receiving an honorable discharge and recovering from his wounds, he rejoined the Army, training to become a second lieutenant in the infantry. He served in a number of combat arms assignments, both in the United States and overseas, including a second tour in South Vietnam as a military adviser.

Although obviously delighted to receive the Medal of Honor, he hasn't gloated about it.

"I'm not a hero," he said in the days leading up to the ceremony. "It's everybody who was in Vietnam. They're the heroes."

Sun staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article.

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