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News From The Past

The Los Angeles Times
February 9, 2000

34 years later, man gets Medal of Honor for heroism in Vietnam

by Paul Richter
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON - The nation bestowed its highest military honor on a Mexican-American veteran who was not a citizen when he threw his body over three fellow soldiers to protect them in Vietnam.

In a White House ceremony yesterday, 34 years after the fact, former medic Alfred Rascon was awarded the Medal of Honor and saluted by President Clinton for "a rare quality of heroism" displayed in deeds that kept enemy troops from wiping out his platoon.

The nomination of Rascon was held up for years by mishandled paperwork and then high-level Pentagon resistance. It was approved in May, after a seven-year crusade by platoon members and other advocates.

"This man gave everything he had, utterly and selflessly," Clinton said in a ceremony attended by top military officials, other veterans of the 173rd Airborne Brigade and Rascon's family.

Clinton cited Rascon's comment that he had enlisted because he had "wanted to give back something" to his new country. Clinton said this was an example of the military contributions by immigrants, who number 60,000 in the armed forces.

Yet Rascon, 54, now a Maryland resident and inspector general of the U.S. Selective Service System, played down his achievement. "The honor is not really mine," said Rascon. "It ends up being (the honor of) those who were with me that day."

Rascon moved with his family to California as a toddler. When he enlisted in the Army at 17, he joined one of the first U.S. units to fight in Vietnam.

His greatest test came on March 16, 1966, when his unit was sent to reinforce a sister battalion locked in battle north of Bien Hoa, South Vietnam. His platoon suddenly came under attack.

Although Spec. 4 Rascon was ordered to stay back, he raced to the front to try to shield a machine gunner who had been hit. A bullet pierced Rascon's hip as he pulled the gunner to cover.

To help another machine gunner mount a counterattack, Rascon retrieved two belts of ammunition, a machine gun and a spare machine-gun barrel that had been left on the trail. Minutes later, when another soldier was threatened by a grenade, Rascon tackled him and lay across him as the explosive went off.

Bleeding from several wounds, Rascon found another wounded machine gunner. He began treating him, but when another grenade landed, he again shielded the gunner. The explosion punctured Rascon's face, head and neck.

Because of Rascon's help, the gunner was able to lay down machine-gun fire that forced the enemy troops to retreat.

The fight left Rascon so gravely wounded that he was given last rites. Later, because of his injuries, he was discharged from the Army, but he rejoined as an officer, and in 1972 signed up for a second Vietnam tour. He also became a citizen.

Members of Rascon's platoon, thinking his actions at Bien Hoa should have earned him the Medal of Honor, believed the lieutenant who commanded the unit during the firefight was going to nominate him for that decoration. But the lieutenant nominated Rascon for a Silver Star instead.

In 1993, at a reunion, platoon members learned Rascon never got the medal they thought he deserved. They gathered testimony from six platoon members and began to push for the Medal of Honor.

The platoon's petitions were denied. But the efforts of the platoon members, the Vietnam Veterans of America, and Rep. Lane Evans, D-Ill., reached Clinton. In May, the Senate approved a Pentagon recommendation that Rascon be awarded the medal.

 
2000, by The Seattle Times Company
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