The Defining Generation
Specialist Lawrence Joel
The sacrifice of Milton Lee Olive, III, might well be used by some to validate the common, but erroneous perception of many anti-war protesters in the 60s that the Vietnam War was being fought by poor, youthful Blacks with no education and no job skills, most of whom were drafted and sent unwillingly to war. While to some degree that might be an accurate assessment of Milton Olive's background, it is a narrow view that misses the entire lesson to be learned from his heroism and sacrifice.
Indeed Skipper dropped out of high school to join the military, but he did, in fact, find in his role as a soldier a purpose, identity, and a measure of equality. The same could be said for many of his White counterparts who opted for the opportunities military service afforded after they dropped out of school or perhaps ran a fowl of the law. Furthermore, Milton Olive was neither POOR nor DRAFTED.
In a July 5, 1986, speech by General William C. Westmoreland before the Third Annual Reunion of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots' Association (VHPA) at the Washington, D.C. Hilton Hotel, the former commander of the Armed Forces in Vietnam addressed some of the myths that have for years prevented an accurate assessment of the men and women who served:
MYTH 1: A disproportionate number of blacks were killed in the Vietnam War.
to General Westmoreland's research, which is further verified by the CATF
(Combat Area Casualty File), 86% of the men who died in Vietnam were
Caucasians, 12.5% were black, 1.2% were other races.
MYTH 2: Most Vietnam
veterans were drafted.
Westmoreland reported that two-thirds of the men who served in Vietnam
were volunteers. This was a reversal from World War II when two-thirds of
the men who served were draftees. The Vietnam War military was one of the
largest VOLUNTEER military forces in our nation to that date.
MYTH 3: The war was fought
largely by the poor and uneducated.
addressed this myth in a 1993 speech by noting that servicemen who went to
Vietnam from well-to-do areas had a slightly elevated risk of dying
because they were more likely to be pilots or infantry officers. Vietnam
Veterans were the best educated forces our nation had ever sent into
combat; 79% had a high school education or better.
MYTH 4: Those who served
and died were young men, often high school drop outs or recent graduates
in their early teens.
CATF database reveals that Average age of the 58,148 killed in Vietnam was
23.11 years. The average age of an E-1 Private who was killed in Vietnam
was 20.34 years, and the average age of an Infantryman killed in Vietnam
was 22.5 years.
On November 8, 1965, just sixteen days after Milton Olive sacrificed his life to save the lives of four other men, Specialist Fifth Class Lawrence Joel became the second Black American to earn the Medal of Honor. In stark contrast to the aforementioned myths, at the time of his action Joel was 37 years old, a high school graduate, highly trained as a combat medic, and found a comfortable lifestyle in a military career he enjoyed. Amazingly, Specialist Joel also survived multiple wounds in that heroic action to become the first LIVING Black Recipient of the Medal of Honor since the Spanish-American War, and the first ever admitted to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
All the positives aside, Lawrence Joel's early life had not been without it share of problems, far beyond the color of his skin. Born on February 22, 1928, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he was a year old when the stock market crashed on October 29, 1929, and spent his formative years growing up in the poverty of the great depression. By 1936 the depression had taken so heavy a toll on Joel's parents that they separated and could no longer care for their son. Joel later recalled many tears shed during his boyhood as he pondered his unfortunate circumstances. At age eight Joel was given up to foster parents. Thereafter, Mr. and Mrs. Clayton Samuel raised Joel along with their five daughters.
Unlike many of the young men of the World War II era, Joel remained in school and gained his high school diploma in 1945. After graduation, at age 17, Joel joined the Merchant Marines. One year later at age 18 he joined the U.S. Army, attended jump school to become a paratrooper, and served overseas in post-war Italy.
When Joel's four-year Army commitment ended he returned briefly to civilian life, but found his options limited. In a 1967 interview for "Time" magazine he said he had come to realize that "You couldn't make it really big (as a Negro on the outside)." Discouraged with his non-military options, and forsaking initial goals to become a beautician, Joel decided to reenlist and make a career in the Army.
Already jump qualified, he received new and extensive training to become a medical aidman. The non-combat role suited well his quiet demeanor and peaceful attitude. Joel wasn't a pacifist, he was once busted for arguing with a sergeant, but he was a simple, peaceful man who cared deeply about others. In the media attention surrounding award of the Medal of Honor years later at a time when the war in Vietnam was becoming increasingly unpopular, reporters asked Joel about the morality of the conflict. Joel replied with firm conviction, "Most of the men who have been to Viet Nam feel this war is right."
Specialist Five Joel's subsequent assignment to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 503d Infantry Regiment, 173d Airborne Brigade demonstrated just how dramatically the Army had become color-blind in the 1960s. While Black and other minority soldiers had previously been privileged to receive the specialized training of a medical aidman, it was always intended for the healers that would serve in their own, segregated units. When the aforementioned Spanish-American War Corporal stated, "They (Black Soldiers) can drink out of our canteens," after witnessing the heroism of the Buffalo Soldiers at San Juan Hill (actually Kettle Hill) in 1898, it was a telling statement. Half-a-century later in many Southern States, Blacks could not drink out of the same water fountain used by their White neighbors. Meanwhile in Vietnam, Black medics like Joel performed the most intimate and basic life-saving measures on their counterparts, Black, White, Red, Brown, and Yellow.
On November 8, 1965, Specialist Joel accompanied an Infantry Company into combat in the Iron Triangle, not far from where Milton Olive had sacrificed his life to save his comrades two weeks earlier. He was unarmed and carrying a medical aid bag filled with bandages, syrettes of morphine, plasma, and instruments to GIVE not TAKE, life.
After disembarking from helicopters the lead squad moved out to pave the way for the rest of the company. Almost immediately they were hit by withering fire from a well-hidden and numerically-superior Viet Cong force. Nearly every man in the lead squad was killed or wounded, while the remaining squads scrambled for cover to begin engaging the enemy in what was to become a bitter 24-hour firefight.
Ignoring the bullets that struck all around and the explosions of grenades, Joel rushed forward to reach the wounded and dead of the lead squad. While moving from man to man, death impacting all around him, one enemy machine-gun bullet struck Joel in the right leg. Determined to help his comrades he paused only long enough to rip open his trousers and stuff a bandage into the ruptured flesh. Gritting his teeth against unbearable pain, he quickly administered morphine to himself to enable him to continue his important tasks. Over the next 24 hours it was the only relief he would seek for himself. Then he continued to hobble across the battlefield, patching up bullet wounds, giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to wounded and even to the corpses of those he hoped desperately to revive. His subsequent Medal of Honor citation states, "Although painfully wounded his desire to aid his fellow soldiers transcended all personal feeling."
Locating one man who desperately needed blood, Joel quickly inserted a needle and then, despite the hail of bullets from both sides that criss-crossed the battlefield, he knelt bravely in full view of all to hold the plasma bottle high enough for the fluid to flow into nearly-drained blood veins. Reaching yet another man from whose chest bubbled the last remaining ounces of blood, he grabbed a plastic bandage bag and firmly held it in place while silently praying for a miracle. The flow of blood slowed, and then congealed. Joel administered plasma and treated the wounded man's pain before moving on. Thanks to the intrepid medic's resourcefulness and persistence, the soldier survived.
Joel's citation continued, "After being struck a second time and with a bullet lodged in his thigh, he dragged himself over the battlefield and succeeded in treating 13 more men before his medical supplies ran out." Even then Specialist Joel refused to leave the wounded men who so desperately needed his help. He sent word to the rear that he needed more medical supplies, and while waiting for them to arrive he continued to do what little he could by shouting words of encouragement to men for whom hope seemed to have vanished.
When at last one soldier crept forward with the additional medical supplies Joel had requested, he saw the valiant medic's ripped fatigue trousers and bloody bandaged legs. "You better head back to the rear and get treatment," he suggested.
"I'll be alright," Joel responded. Then, as another platoon charged forward to dislodge the entrenched enemy, Joel took off behind them knowing well there would be many more injuries requiring his service. Throughout the day and into the night, time after time he limped and crawled into the areas under the most deadly fire to find, treat, and comfort his comrades. Time and again his fellow "Sky Soldiers" told him to get down, or fall back, or head to the rear for treatment. Each time Joel refused, pushing his own wounded legs to do the impossible, and forcing his exhausted body to sustain.
By the following morning the battlefield was littered with the bodies of more than 400 enemy. Nearly 50 young "Sky Soldiers" were also dead, and many more wounded. Even when the contact was broken, as Specialist Joel and others moved about the field of battle to locate and evacuate the wounded, and to recover the bodies of comrades, sniper fire continued to make it dangerous work.
When Joel had done all that he could do, the pressure of the previous 24-hours finally caused him to come crashing back down. Time Magazine reported, "Joel recalls looking at himself: hands encrusted with blood to the wrists, legs thick with edema and dirty bandages. He lay under a tree and cried for the first time since he was a boy in Winston-Salem."
An officer found Joel and, stunned by the young medic's wounds, immediately ordered him to the rear for treatment. His comrades, equally stunned by his incredible display of courage, compassion, and absolute fortitude during one of the Brigade's most deadly battles of the war, nominated him for the Medal of Honor.
During the Vietnam War 13 members of the 173d Airborne Brigade received Medals of Honor, almost unprecedented at the brigade level. Specialist Sixth Class Lawrence Joel was one of only three of these to survive his moment of heroism. When Joel and his wife, along with his foster parents Mr. and Mrs. Samuel were invited to the White House for ceremonies on March 9, 1967, it was an historic event. The young man who had joined the Army because he believed "You couldn't make it really big (as a Negro on the outside)," became the first Black American in history to receive the Medal of Honor from the President of the United States.
To the men of the 173d Airborne Brigade, an elite unit that proved in Vietnam that valor was a common thread among so many "Sky Soldiers", William Joel became legendary. He retired from the Army in 1973 and died in 1973 from complications of diabetes at the age of 53.
Had there ever been any doubt about that young man's potential, it was quickly erased for those who became aware of his actions and heroism on the fields of battle in Vietnam. When awarding the Medal of Honor, President Johnson himself noted, "As we salute the valor of this soldier, we salute the best in the American tradition."
Said Lawrence Joel when queried prior to that ceremony, "I'm glad to be alive. I just wish I could have done more. It was just my job."
 The CATF is the primary database of Vietnam War casualties cited in most studies of the war, and serves as the basis for the roll call of those whose names are listed on the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C.
 Speech by Lt. Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, (reproduced in the Pentagram, June 4, 1993) assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Vietnam veterans and visitors gathered at "The Wall", Memorial Day 1993.
The Defining Generation: Copyright © 2006 by Doug and Pam Sterner
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