Special Forces Senior Medic Lee Martin vividly remembers the first time he saw Green Beret Raul Perez “Roy” Benavidez on May 2, 1968.
Benavidez’s bloody, muddy, beaten body was inside a body bag, which was laying on the airstrip at the Loc Ninh Special Forces A Camp A-331 (located near the Cambodian border), waiting to be shipped to the morgue. His body bag was lying alongside the bodies of several American aviators and Green Berets, and a few enemy soldiers who were killed that day during a top-secret mission in Cambodia that turned deadly.
“I’ll never forget it,” Martin told SOFREP. “He was just a mess. There was no doubt in my mind that he was dead, based on his appearance: the dried blood, sweat, mud, and soft body tissues on his face.”
Martin watched as a doctor bent down and gave one final inspection of the Green Beret sergeant. Much to his surprise, Benavidez’s lips moved as he spit at the doctor, incapable of speaking or moaning. “His face was so caked over he couldn’t open his eyes,” Martin recalled. Also, the doctor couldn’t see that Benavidez’s arms crossed over a gaping abdominal wound that he suffered at the hands of a communist North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldier.
Author Eric Blehm brilliantly captures that surreal moment in Green Beret history on page one of his recently penned non-fiction masterpiece, “Legend.”
Blehm skillfully crafts a story that takes readers into Benavidez’s history, from his early days as a migrant worker with a hair-trigger temper in El Campo, Texas, to the foundational moment in his life when he dedicates himself to honor, duty, and country.
He also covers the surprising 10-year effort that it took for Sergeant Benavidez to be recommended for the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor. President Ronald Reagan draped it around his neck on February 24, 1981—13 years after Benavidez’s heroic efforts in Cambodia.
Additionally, for readers who want to know more about the top secret war conducted during the Vietnam War under the aegis of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam—Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG), Blehm frames Benavidez’s day in Cambodian hell by expertly explaining the need for a secret war and the motivations behind the men who fought in it, providing an accurate frame of reference that enhances the understanding of Benavidez’s core values: Family members had told Benavidez to help those who needed help.
These factors lead him to jump on a helicopter returning to a deadly landing zone in Cambodia to simply help his fellow Green Berets, their indigenous troops, and the fearless aviators who regularly put their lives on the line every day flying in support of SOG missions by traveling across the fence into enemy-held territory. When Benavidez jumped onto that helicopter, he was carrying a medic’s kit and a knife. No gun.
After two years spent researching and interviewing, Blehm presents the readers with insightful details into the 12-man recon team that went on the secret mission into Cambodia to find and capture Russian equipment. You’ll read about Leroy Wright, the team leader; Lloyd Mousseau, the assistant team leader; and Brian O’Connor, the Green Beret radioman on the team.
Blehm also breathes life into the key indigenous personnel on the team: Tuan, the interpreter; Bao, the fearless point man; and Chien, the grenadier. Readers will learn that Tuan had attended a university before joining the ranks of SOG indigenous personnel. A Saigon native, Tuan was well-read and a staunch anti-communist. However, he was also a critic of the corruption within South Vietnam’s government.
Blehm pays tribute to the indigenous troops on the Project Sigma recon team who fought heroically beside their Green Beret counterparts. He details their courage under fire by a huge, numerically superior North Vietnamese Army force.
Blehm doesn’t stop there.
This California native son, who has written two previous books on Special Operations troops, one on a Green Beret A-Team in Afghanistan and one on Navy SEAL Team Six, brings to life the airmen who served so valiantly in support of SOG missions throughout the war.
In this instance, the men of the 240th Assault Helicopter Company were the lead support helicopter element for that fateful mission into Cambodia, lead by Major Jesse James. Blehm points out the harsh political realities of American soldiers and aircrews having to cope with an enemy force supplied by Russia, China, and other Eastern Bloc nations, training and hiding with impunity in Cambodia.
All parties involved in battle that day had signed a treaty agreeing not to send armed troops into Cambodia or Laos. The U.S. State Department knew the communist troops were there but didn’t expose them publicly while they made sure that no U.S. troops entered Cambodia, other than the men of SOG and the aircrews assigned to that mission. The men of the 240th AHC, the Greyhound slicks, and Mad Dog gunships flew into the teeth of a heavily armed and entrenched NVA force.
Here, Blehm puts his honed writing skills into high gear, as he lays out minute, painful details of the fight, complete with three extremely helpful maps. For any veteran whose been pinned down by enemy gunfire, reading this battle account will have you feeling chills up your spine; it evokes memories of battles past. But few battles could be as severe as the hornet’s nest that the Project Sigma team entered that day.
As I read the book, I got to know the men involved on both sides of the mission, thanks to the research and interviews Blehm garnered. I couldn’t put the book down until I turned to page 276 and read the research and acknowledgments that Blehm outlined.
This is a must-read for any SOG/aviation combat reader or aficionado.
About the author
Eric Blehm is the author of the New York Times bestsellers “Fearless” and “The Only Thing Worth Dying For.” His first book, “The Last Season,” was the winner of the National Outdoor Book Award, and was deemed by Outside magazine to be one of the “greatest adventure biographies ever written.” He lives in southern California with his wife and children.