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September 2, 2002

 

 

Volunteer for Freedom's Defense
Pays a Haunting Price

Jon Cavaiani volunteered for it all.

He was born in 1943 in England, grew up in Italy and earned his U.S. citizenship in 1968.

In 1969, he enlisted in the U.S. Army.

Within months, he was in Vietnam. During his first combat, his battalion leader was killed.

But Cavaiani had volunteered for it all.

So he adopted the Vietnamese son of his slain commander. He helped build an orphanage. Seven monks and 37 children lived there. They played outside even while bombs burst nearby. They lived with an innocent happiness and hope.

And then ...

Then the North Vietnamese Army came through one day and killed every one of them.

That almost killed Cavaiani. But he kept volunteering. He volunteered for it all.

Less than three years after he'd become a citizen, Cavaiani stepped forward when his country asked for Special Forces troops, a group so secret the government denied its existence. This was how he came to find himself commanding 94 men on a valuable piece of Vietnamese property called Hickory Hill on June 4-5, 1971, with the NVA climbing the hillside to take over a piece of high ground just 29 yards wide and 73 yards long.

The NVA wanted to accomplish two things:

One, eliminate a National Security Agency radio-monitoring post used to intercept their broadcasts; and two, kill the 27 U.S. and 67 South Vietnamese soldiers operating and guarding it.

The enemy accomplished the first objective.

But the actions of Cavaiani, who received the Medal of Honor for his dedication to liberty's cause those two days on Hickory Hill, kept a force far superior in number from accommplishing the second.

During the enemy's most intense assault on the hill, with defenses diminishing, Cavaiani called for helicopter evacuation. He repeatedly exposed himself to hostile fire as he rallied his men and fought the enemy with a variety of weapons. Cavaiani directed the landing of the helicopters and the evacuation of a major part of his troops.

But when the friendly choppers quit coming, 28 men, including Cavaiani, were left on the hill.

On the morning of the 5th, the assault continued as Cavaiani, completely exposing himself to enemy fire, remained to provide cover fire and allow even more soldiers from the dwindling defense force to escape. A grenade blast knocked him unconscious in a bunker. An enemy soldier thought him dead and set the bunker on fire; though on fire, Cavaiani couldn't move until the soldier had walked away.

Cavaiani survived for 10 days before being captured, 20 miles from Hickory Hill - and just outside the fences of friendly forces.

For 23 months, he was a prisoner of war. He began the war weighing 197 pounds and left it weighing 90.

From his citizenship to his enlisting in the military to his service in the special forces, Cavaiani had volunteered for it all.

Today, he is 59, retired from the military, living in California and a regional director for the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. He makes no secret of the struggles he's had with his war experiences; he makes no secret of how he feels about America, either.

"I do my work because it helps me; it helps my head," Cavaiani says. "You try to spend a lot of time forgetting about the war, and then they call you to the White House to give you a 'reward' and remind you of those things. Many of those times are really private, to be honest with you.

"When I talk to kids, I don't talk about the gory side of war, not the 'I saw the whites of their eyes and therefore I shot 'em' side. War's horrible enough without going into all of that.

"But I do try to teach them some Vietnam history, to explain how things, the attitude of many in the country, had changed between the mid-50s and the war in the late '60s. And I think it's important they understand that freedom isn't free. There's a price."

Cavaiani paid a high one. But he's certain it was worth it. Even with the nightmares. Even with the atmosphere of the country when he returned to America after two years as a POW and a soon-to-be Medal of Honor recipient, an atmosphere that portrayed little pride in its soldiers.

"America is absolutely the greatest country on Earth," he says. "I've lived in many other places, but I've never failed to come back. Regardless of how democratic a nation purports to be, America is ... America is the best. It's the grandest country there is."

 

 

2002, by The Shreveport Times
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