Medal of Honor Recipient
Master Sergeant Roy Benavidez

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Born: August 5, 1935 - Died: November 29, 1998

As the medevac chopper landed the wounded were examined one by one. Staff Sergeant Benavidez could only hear what was going on around him. He had over thirty seven puncture wounds. His intestines were exposed. He could not see as his eyes were caked in blood and unable to open. Neither could he speak, his jaw broken, clubbed by a North Vietnamese rifle. But he knew what was happening, and it was the scariest moment of his life, even more so than the earlier events of the day. He lay in a body bag, bathed in his own blood. Jerry Cottingham, a friend screamed:

That's Benavidez. Get a doc.

When the doctor arrived he placed his hand on Roy's chest to feel for a heartbeat. He pronounced him dead. The physician shook his head as he said:

There's nothing I can do for him.

As the doctor bent over to zip up the body bag. Benavidez did the only thing he could think of to let the doctor know that he was alive. He spit in the doctor's face. The surprised doctor reversed Roy's condition from dead to:

He won't make it, but we'll try.

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Roy Benavisez at 15 years old

Roy Benavidez was born in 1935 near Cuero, Texas, to impoverished sharecroppers of Mexican and Yaqui Indian ancestry. Both parents died of tuberculosis before his eighth birthday. He and his younger brother, Roger, along with eight cousins, were raised by their grandfather, an aunt and uncle, in El Campo.

As a young man growing up in humble surroundings, Benavidez shined shoes at the local bus station, labored on farms in Texas and Colorado, and worked in a tire shop. Regularly insulted as “a dumb Mexican,” he dropped out of school in the seventh grade.

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PFC Roy Benavidez

Benavidez enlisted in the Texas Army National Guard in 1952 before entering the regular Army in 1955. Hilaria “Lala” Coy became his wife in 1959, the same year he completed airborne training and joined the 82nd Airborne Division. Benavidez stepped on a land mine while serving his first tour in Vietnam as an advisor in 1965 and was evacuated to the United States. The doctors at Brooke Army Medical Center claimed he would never walk again. Despite spinal injuries, Benavidez walked out of the hospital in July 1966. His courage and faith served him well. It would not be the last time.

He returned to active service and trained at Fort Bragg, N.C., for the elite Studies and Observations Group. Still suffering from unrelenting back pain, Benavidez returned for a second tour in Vietnam in January 1968. He was assigned to Detachment B56, 5th Special Forces Group Airborne, First Special Forces at Loc Ninh, a Green Beret outpost near the Cambodian border.

Roy Benavidez's ordeal began at Loc Ninh,  It was 1:30 p.m., May 2, 1968. A devout Catholic, Benavidez was attending prayer services on May 22, 1968 when he heard a desperate radio plea:

Get us out of here! For God’s sake, get us out!

The cry for assistance came from a 12-man Special Forces Recon Team consisting of Sergeant First Class Leroy Wright, Staff Sergeant Lloyd "Frenchie" Moussean, Specialist Four Brian O'Connor and nine Nung tribesmen monitoring enemy troop movements in the jungle had found itself surrounded and pinned down in thick jungle by a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regiment west of Loc Ninh. Three choppers had already attempted a rescue but were driven back by small arms and anti-aircraft fire. Benavidez did not have orders to go, but volunteered so quickly that he didn't even bring his M-16 when he dashed for the helicopter preparing for a rescue attempt. He carried instead a medical bag in one hand and a bowie knife in the other, he jumped into the bay of a Huey revving up for another rescue attempt. He told the three crew members.

I'm coming with you.

THE MAKING OF A LEGEND

Intense enemy fire in the area kept the chopper from landing. Hovering 10 feet off the ground, Benavidez made the sign of the cross across his chest and leaped off the chopper and began running the 75 yards towards the trapped men.  Almost immediately, as Benavidez began the deadly gauntlet he was hit by an AK-47 slug in his right leg. He stumbled and fell, but got back up convincing himself that he'd only snagged a thorn bush and kept running to the brush pile where Wright's men lay. He sprang back to his feet but was immediately knocked down again by a hand grenade that ripped his face, back and neck. Praying aloud to his Creator, Benavidez mustered the valor to rise again and run under fire to the crippled 12-man squad.  Those initial wounds were the first of 37 separate bullet, shrapnel, and bayonet injuries Benavidez  would receive during the next six hours of violent combat.

Four of the soldiers were dead, the other eight wounded and pinned down in two groups. Benavidez bound their wounds, injected morphine and, ignoring NVA bullets and grenades, passed around ammunition that he had taken from several bodies and armed himself with an AK. Then Benavidez called in and directed air strikes. He called for the Huey helicopter to a landing near one group. While calling in support he was shot again in the right thigh, his second gunshot wound. He dragged the dead and wounded to the hovering helicopter while  while providing cover fire with an assault rifle he found on the ground. As the helicopter moved to recover even more bodies. The enemy fire increased. The Huey lifted a few feet off the ground and moved toward the second group, with Benavidez running beneath it, firing a rifle he had picked up. He spotted the body of the team leader Sergeant First Class Wright. Ordering the other soldiers to crawl toward the helicopter, he retrieved a pouch dangling from the dead man's neck; in the pouch were classified papers with radio codes and call signs. As he shoved the papers into his shirt, a bullet struck his stomach and a grenade shattered his back. The helicopter, barely off the ground, suddenly crashed, its pilot shot dead.

Coughing blood, Benavidez made his way to the Huey and pulled the wounded from the overturned wreckage. Forming a small perimeter. As he passed out ammunition taken from the dead. The air support he had earlier radioed for arrived. He directed the fire as phantom jets and helicopter gunships strafed the threatening enemy soldiers. Benavidez then continued tending to the wounded. One soldier asked:

Are you hurt bad, Sarge?

Although he was about to collapse from blood loss, Benavidez replied:

        Hell, no, "I've been hit so many times I don't give a damn no more."

Benavidez continued to rally the injured soldiers to fight on. Enemy mortar shells were bursting everywhere. Benavidez called in Phantoms "danger close". Enemy fire raked the perimeter. Several of the wounded were hit again, including Benavidez. By this time he had blood streaming down his face, blinding him. Still he called in air strikes, adjusting their targets by sound. Several times, pilots thought he was dead, but then his voice would come back on the radio, calling for closer strikes. Throughout the fighting, Benavidez, a devout Catholic later recollected:

I made the sign of the cross across my chest so often my arms looked like an airplane propeller.

Finally, a helicopter landed. "Pray and move out", Benavidez told the men as he helped each one aboard. As he carried a seriously wounded Frenchie Mousseau over his shoulder a fallen NVA soldier stood up, swung his rifle and clubbed Benavidez in the head. Benavidez fell, rolled over and got up just as the soldier lunged forward with his bayonet. Benavidez grabbed it, slashing his right hand, and pulled his attacker toward him. With his left hand, he drew his own bowie knife and stabbed the NVA but not before the bayonet poked completely through his left forearm. As Benavidez dragged Mousseau to the chopper, he saw two more NVA materialize out of the jungle. He snatched a fallen AK-47 rifle and shot both. Benavidez made one more trip to the clearing and came back with a Vietnamese interpreter. Only then did the sergeant let the others pull him aboard the helicopter.

Blood dripped from the door as the chopper lumbered into the air. Benavidez was holding in his intestines with his hand. Bleeding almost into unconsciousness, Benavidez lay against the badly wounded Mousseau and held his hand. Just before they landed at the Medevac hospital. Benavidez recalled:

        I felt his fingers dig into my palm, his arm twitching and jumping as if electric current was pouring through his body into mine.

At Loc Ninh, Benavidez was so immobile they placed him with the dead. As the doctor prepared to zip up the body bag, Benevidez did the only thing he could. He spit in the doctor's face to let the doctor know that he was still alive. Benevidez was taken from the body bag, but the doctor surmised he wouldn't make it.

 

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Artist Sketch of MSG Roy Benavidez's heroic rescue

Benavidez spent almost a year in hospitals to recover from his injuries. He had seven major gunshot wounds, twenty-eight shrapnel holes and both arms had been slashed by a bayonet. Benavidez had shrapnel in his head, scalp, shoulder, buttocks, feet, and legs. His right lung was destroyed. He had injuries to his mouth and back of his head from being clubbed with a rifle butt. One of the AK-47 bullets had entered his back exiting just beneath his heart. He had won the battle and lived. When told his one man battle was awesome and extraordinary, Benavidez replied:

        No, that's duty.

Wright and Mousseau were each awarded the Distinguish Service Cross posthumously. Although Master Sergeant Benavidez's commander felt that he deserved the Congressional Medal of Honor for his valor in saving eight lives, he put Roy in for the Distinguished Service Cross. The process for awarding a Medal of Honor would have taken much longer, and he was sure Benavidez would die before he got it. The recommendation for the Distinguish Service Cross was rushed through approval channels.

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General Westmoreland congratulates Staff Sergeant Benavidez

On September 10, 1968, while still recuperating from his wounds at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Roy was visited bt General William C. Westmoreland, then the Chief of Staff of the United States Army.  Westmoreland presented the Distinguish Service Cross to Master Sergeant Benavidez. Westmoreland read the citation that began:

For extraordinary heroism in connectiion with military operations involving conflict with an armed hostile force in the Republic of Vietnam...

And ended with:

Because of Sergeaant Benavidez;s indomitabkle spirit, the lives of eight men were saved."

Years later, his former commander learned that Benavidez had survived the war. The officer also learned more details of the sergeant's mission and concluded that Benavidez merited a higher honor.

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MSG Roy Benavidez is presented the Congressional Medao of Honor by Presesident Ronald Reagan

Years of red tape followed until finally on February 24, 1981, President Reagan told White House reporters:

You are going to hear something you would not believe if it were a script.

Reagan then read Roy Benavidez's Citation for the Medal of Honor.

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The Congressional Medal of Honor

Citation

Master Sergeant, then Staff Sergeant, United States Army. Who distinguished himself by a series of daring and extremely glorious actions on 2 May 1968 while assigned to Detachment B-56, 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. 3 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 crew members 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 gun ships 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 2 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 voluntarily join 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 8 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.

Benavidez however, did not regard himself as a hero.  He said of his actions:

The real heroes are the ones who gave their lives for their country, I don't like to be called a hero. I just did what I was trained to do.  

In addition to being a recipient of the Medal Of Honor, MSG Benavidez was the recipient of the Combat Infantry Badge for his Viet Nam war service, the Purple Heart Medal with 4 Oak Leaf Clusters, Viet Nam Campaign Medal with 4 Battle Stars, Viet Nam Service Medal, Air Medal, Master Parachutist Badge, Vietnamese Parachutist Badge, Republic of Viet Nam Cross of Gallantry with Palm, and other numerous decorations.

Upon retirement Master Sergeant Benavidez lived in El Campo, Texas, with his wife, Lala, and three children, Noel,Yvette and Denise. He was a member of the: Medal of Honor Society, Legion of Valor, Veterans of Foreign War, Special Operations Association, Alamo Silver Wings Airborne Association, and Special Forces Association, The 82nd Airborne Association,West Point Honorary Alumni Association, and countless other organizations.  

Scuttlebutt has it that when Special Forces men are in a tough scrap going badly or courage needs to be summoned, they use the radio call sign Tango Mike Mike; Roy Benavidez’s call sign.

Medal of Honor recipient Roy Benavidez died on Nov. 29, 1998, at the age of 63 from respiratory failure and complications of diabetes. He was buried with full military honors at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery. Sgt. Benavidezs’ Medal of Honor is on display at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

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MSG Roy P. Benavidez's headstone

Master Sergeant Roy Benavidez died on November 29, 1998, at the age of 63 from respiratory failure and complications of diabetes. Over 1,500 people attended his funeral to say goodbye. He was buried with full military honors in the shade of a live oak tree at the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, a fitting final resting place for someone who gave so much of himself to this great nation.  Sgt. Benavidezs’ Medal of Honor is on display at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California

In August 1999, the U.S. Army dedicated the $14 million Master Sergeant Roy P. Benavidez Special Operations Logistics Complex at Fort Bragg, NC.

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Roy P. Benavidez Elementary School, Houston, Texas

In addition to his heroic actions in combat, he will also be remembered for his work with youths.  He spoke at schools and colleges and even runaway shelters. He promoted patriotism, staying-in school, encouraged continuing education, and drug free programs for students. Benavidez’s suggestion to young people:

An education is the key to success. Bad habits and bad company will ruin you.

His fatherly guidance to his son, Noel:

Never bring shame on our family name.

All three of his children are college graduates.

Vision Quest, an organization known for working with problem youths, named a youth boot camp Fort Roy P. Benavidez in Uvalde, Texas after him. Master Sergeant Benavidez was further recognized by the naming of three Roy P. Benavidez Elementary Schools in Texas, and a park in Colorado. In 2001, the Texas legislature honored Benavidez with the Texas Legislative Medal of Honor.

 

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USNS Benavidez

On September 14, 2000, the U.S. Navy Secretary Richard Danzig announced that the U.S. Navy plans to name a cargo ship the USNS Benavidez after Master Sergeant Roy P. Benavidez.  An unprecedented honor by the U.S. Navy, to name a Navy ship after an Army sergeant. The USNS Benavidez, will be the seventh in a class of large, medium speed roll-on/roll-off sealift ships.  Army Secretary Louis Caldera made these remarks on the Navy's announcement:

Master Sergeant Roy Benavidez was a true American hero, rising from humble origins in South Texas to become an Army legend. Wounded over 40 times as he saved the lives of eight fellow soldiers under heavy fire in Vietnam, he always said he was only doing his duty to his fellow soldiers and to the country he loved. The Navy's recognition of his selfless service is truly an appropriate tribute to Master Sgt. Benavidez's memory, and to the ideals of our nation that he epitomized.

On September 10, 2003, the USNS Benavidez was assigned to the United States Department of Defense's Military Sealift Command.

If you would like to learn more about Master Sergeant Roy Benavidez's life, before, during and after the Vietnam War,  I recommend his two autobiographical books. In 1986, he published The Three Wars of Roy Benavidez, which described his struggles growing up as a poor Mexican-American orphan, his military training and combat in Vietnam, and the efforts by others to get recognition for his actions in Vietnam. In 1995, Benavidez later wrote, co-authored with John R. Craig, Medal of Honor: A Vietnam Warrior's Story.