Remarks on Presenting the Medal of Honor to Master Sergeant Roy P. Benavidez

February 24, 1981

Men and women of the Armed Forces, ladies and gentlemen:

Several years ago, we brought home a group of American fighting men who had obeyed their country's call and who had fought as bravely and as well as any Americans in our history. They came home without a victory not because they'd been defeated, but because they'd been denied permission to win.

They were greeted by no parades, no bands, no waving of the flag they had so nobly served. There's been no ``thank you'' for their sacrifice. There's been no effort to honor and, thus, give pride to the families of more than 57,000 young men who gave their lives in that faraway war.

As the poet Laurence Binyon wrote, ``They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them.'' Pride, of course, cannot wipe out the burden of grief borne by their families, but it can make that grief easier to bear. The pain will not be quite as sharp if they know their fellow citizens share that pain.

There's been little or no recognition of the gratitude we owe to the more than 300,000 men who suffered wounds in that war. John Stuart Mill said, ``War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. A man who has nothing which he cares about more than his personal safety is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.''

Back in 1970 Kenneth Y. Tomlinson wrote of what he had seen our young men do beyond and above the call of military duty in Vietnam -- a marine from Texas on his way in at dawn from an all-night patrol stopping to treat huge sores on the back of an old Vietnamese man, an artilleryman from New Jersey spending his free time stacking sandbags at an orphanage to protect the children from mortar attacks, an Army engineer from California distributing toys he'd bought in Hong Kong to the orphans his unit had adopted. One senior military officer told Tomlinson, ``My hardest task is keeping track of the incurable humanitarianism of our troops.''

None of the recent movies about that war have found time to show those examples of humanitarianism. In 1969 alone, United States Army volunteers helped construct 1,253 schools and 597 hospitals and dispensaries, contributing $300,000 from their own pockets. Marines from the Third Amphibious Force helped build 268 classrooms, 75 dispensaries, 78 churches, temples, and pagodas. Marines contributed $40,000 to ensure an education for 935 children. Air Force men gave their money and their own labor to 1,218 schools, medical facilities, and orphanages. Air Force doctors, dentists, and medics treated 390,000 Vietnamese in volunteeer programs.

At Hoa Khanh, Children's Hospital treated in that one year some 16,000 children, many of whom might have died without the hospital. One of the finest and most modern in the Far East, it was built and financed with money raised by combat marines. An 11-year-old boy burned over three-quarters of his body was one of those saved. He interrupted the game he was playing with visiting marines to say, ``All my life, I will never forget this place and these healing people. Some way, I will repay them.''

A 27-year-old chaplain from Springfield, Missouri, came upon an orphanage where 60 children were sleeping on the floor of a school and subsisting on one or two bowls of rice a day. He told some men of the Americal Division's Fifth Battalion, 46th Infantry, about what he'd seen. A veteran sergeant said, ``Don't worry, Chaplain. Those kids have just got themselves some new parents.'' And they had.

Army combat troops began sacking enemy food they had captured and shipping them back on returning helicopters. They found cots in a salvage dump, repaired them, and soon the children were sleeping in beds for the first time. One day, the cup was passed. Marines earmarked 10 percent of all poker winnings, and by the end of the year, the orphans were in a new building.

An Air Force pilot saw 240 lepers living in unimaginable filth. Soon there were volunteers from all branches of the military spending their weekends building houses at a hospital.

The stories go on and on. A Green Beret learned that a mother in a remote mountain village was having trouble in childbirth. He made his way to her home, caried her to a truck, and raced to Cam Ranh, where a Navy doctor delivered the baby. On Christmas he gave 1,500 orphans toothpaste, soap, candy, and nuts he'd collected from fellow servicemen.

Bob Hope, who visited our men there as he had in two previous wars, said of them, ``The number of our GI's who devote their free time, energy, and money to aid the Vietnamese would surprise you.'' And then he added, ``But maybe it wouldn't. I guess you know what kind of guys your sons and brothers and the kids next door are.'' Well, yes, we do know. I think we just let it slip our minds for a time. It's time to show our pride in them and to thank them.

In his book, ``The Bridges of Toko-Ri,'' novelist James Michener writes movingly of the heroes who fought in the Korean conflict. In the book's final scene an admiral stands on the darkened bridge of his carrier waiting for pilots he knows will never return from their mission. And as he waits he asks in the silent darkness, ``Where did we get such men?'' Almost a generation later, I asked that same question when our POW's were returned from savage captivity in Vietnam: ``Where did we find such men?'' We find them where we've always found them, in our villages and towns, on our city streets, in our shops, and on our farms.

I have one more Vietnam story, and the individual in this story was brought up on a farm outside of Cuero in De Witt County, Texas, and he is here today. Thanks to the Secretary of Defense, Cap Weinberger, I learned of his story, which had been overlooked or buried for several years. It has to do with the highest award our Nation can give, the Congressional Medal of Honor, given only for service above and beyond the call of duty.

Secretary Weinberger, would you please escort Sergeant Benavidez forward.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are honored to have with us today Master Sergeant Roy P. Benavidez, U.S. Army, Retired. Let me read the plain, factual military language of the citation that was lost for too long a time.

``Master Sergeant Roy P. Benavidez, United States Army, Retired, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.'' Where there is a brave man, it is said, there is the thickest of the fight, there is the place of honor.

[At this point, the President read the citation, the text of which follows.]

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, March 3, 1863, has awarded in the name of the Congress the Medal of Honor to

Master Sergeant Roy P. Benavidez

United States Army, Retired

for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty:

On May 2, 1968, Master Sergeant (then Staff Sergeant) Roy P. Benavidez distinguished himself by a series of daring and extremely valorous actions while assigned to Detachment B-56, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces, Republic of Vietnam. On the morning of May 2, 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. Three 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 crewmembers 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 cannisters 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 the classified documents on the dead team leader. When he reached the team 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 build-up of enemy opposition with a beleagured team, Sergeant Benavidez mustered his strength, and began calling in tactical air strikes and directing the fire from supporting gunships, 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 from behind by an enemy soldier. In the ensuing hand-to-hand combat, he sustained 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 two 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 join voluntarily 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 eight 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.

Ronald Reagan

Sergeant Benavidez, a nation grateful to you, and to all your comrades living and dead, awards you its highest symbol of gratitude for service above and beyond the call of duty, the Congressional Medal of Honor.

[At this point, the President presented the award to Master Sergeant Benavidez.]

Note: The President spoke at 1:45 p.m. at the ceremony held in the Inner Court of the Pentagon.

Prior to the ceremony, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger and Master Sergeant Benavidez and members of his family met with the President in the Oval Office at the White House.