When former Green Beret, SFC Jose Rodela, who had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry in Vietnam, learned that his award was being upgraded to the Medal of Honor, many years later in 2014, he didn’t react very well. In fact, he wished that the government hadn’t brought up that fateful day at all.
The war, and the memory of close friends who didn’t survive that 18-hour battle, still haunted the veteran. He preferred to leave the battle and its aftermath behind.
“I’m a little disturbed,” Rodela said at the time when he found out his medal was being upgraded. “I don’t like it, but I go along with it because of service to my country. I really wish they had left me alone, but I’m here and I’m going to give you the best I know.”
In 2002, Congress began scanning records of Black, Hispanic, and Jewish troops. It wanted to examine if there was any bias that would have prevented them from receiving the Medal of Honor in actions performed in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
The same year, Congress passed the Defense Authorization Act. It prompted a review of Latino and Jewish service members who had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest honor, but not the Medal of Honor.
There were 19 men that fell into that category. Two were Special Forces veterans from the Vietnam war: One of them was Rodela.
He was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor by President Obama at the White House on March 18, 2014, along with fellow Green Beret Melvin Morris.
Rodela was born in Corpus Christi, TX in 1937. He left school in his sophomore year because he was bored and looked for the discipline that the military offered. He joined the military in 1955.
Rodela then joined Special Forces. He was assigned to Detachment B-36 of the 5th Special Forces Group. Although he was a Green Beret NCO, he was a company commander of a group of Cambodians. Rodela and the other SF NCOs would recruit the Cambodians, train them through basic combat training, and then lead them into combat.
In an interview he gave in December of 2013, Rodela said that recruiting the Cambodians was a normal occurrence. “Every three months we’d go to Cambodia, load up the volunteers in C-130s, and take them to war,” he said.
Rodela would sometimes recruit Vietnamese; yet, preferred Cambodians as he said they were the superior fighters. But the Green Berets would never mix the two ethnic peoples as they both disliked and distrusted one another.
On September 1, 1969, the Mobile Strike Force that the SF troops were leading, got into a pitched battle with North Vietnamese regulars at Phuoc Long Province, South Vietnam.
The North Vietnamese outnumbered and outgunned the SF-led strikers. But that never deterred the Green Berets. “We looked for them, found them and killed them,” Rodela said. “That’s what we were there to do.”
But the NVA regulars were dug in and prepared for the battle which was to come and would last 18 hours.
At the very outset of the battle, the Cambodian troops under the SF men came under withering machine gun, rocket, and artillery fire.
Rodela, displaying immense coolness under fire, moved out into the open and began to move his men into a half-moon defensive perimeter. His actions gave the rest of the battalion time to organize a coordinated defense and saved his unit from sustaining even worse casualties.
During the battle, he went from position to position, physically checking on the status of his men. By encouraging them, moving them to more stable defensive positions, and checking on the wounded, he was an inspiration to them. Despite being targeted by machine gun and rocket fire, and wounded by shrapnel in his back and head, he kept this up for the entire 18 hours.
In an interview with the San Antonio Express, Rodela recalled having to take out a machine gun position, armed by young teenagers, just 16-17 years-old. They hadn’t realized the predicament they were in until it was too late. They were laughing and jeering at Rodela as he tried to clear the position and free his men who were under fire.
“The rest of them left but they hung around that machine gun, and they kept shooting. I just went around the bushes and they just wouldn’t leave, wouldn’t leave. I shot them. I (yelled), ‘Get out of here!'” Rodela remembered. “I was trying to recover my people; they were being shot by the machine gun. They kept interfering. Young kids! Wow, that’s what bothers me. I had to shoot them.” During the battle, Rodela two best friends, Green Berets SSG Rudy Chavez and SFC Joe Haga were killed in the intense firefight. In the battle, the Cambodians had 11 dead and 33 wounded.
Afterward, Rodela and his Cambodians came across an orphaned 12-year old boy who was all alone in the jungle. He took him in and was planning on adopting and bringing him to the United States. So the boy stayed with the unit. But one night the boy stepped on a landmine and was killed. Rodela, who had already thought of the boy as his own son, was haunted by his death.
After Vietnam, Rodela was assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group. Utilizing his Spanish language skills, he served in Colombia and many other countries in Latin America before retiring from the Army in 1975. He went into business with a Latin American seamstress making maternity clothes for a while and lived quietly since.
Until his DSC was upgraded to the MOH, his own children didn’t know about his exploits. Asked why, he said, “because you have the mission of giving them orders and they don’t come back.”
It is doubtful that the proud and private Rodela will be making many appearances as a speaker. “I can’t forget it, it’s just I don’t repeat it. I don’t want to repeat it. There were a lot of people hurt, a lot of people who never came back. Let them rest,” Rodela said.
Rodela still lives, quietly in San Antonio.
Medal Of Honor Citation:
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty:
Sergeant First Class Jose Rodela distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty while serving as the company commander, Detachment B-36, Company A, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces during combat operations against an armed enemy in Phuoc Long Province, Republic of Vietnam on September 1, 1969.
That afternoon, Sergeant First Class Rodela’s battalion came under an intense barrage of mortar, rocket, and machine gunfire. Ignoring the withering enemy fire, Sergeant First Class Rodela immediately began placing his men into defensive positions to prevent the enemy from overrunning the entire battalion. Repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire, Sergeant First Class Rodela moved from position to position, providing suppressing fire and assisting the wounded, and was himself wounded in the back and head by a B-40 rocket while recovering a wounded comrade. Alone, Sergeant First Class Rodela assaulted and knocked out the B-40 rocket position before successfully returning to the battalion’s perimeter.
Sergeant First Class Rodela’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army.”
Rodela’s awards and decorations include the Medal of Honor, March 18, 2014; Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart with one Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster, Air Medal with “V” Device, Army Commendation Medal with one Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster, Army Good Conduct Medal with Silver Clasp and one Loop, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with one Silver Service Star, Korea Defense Service Medal, Meritorious Unit Commendation with one Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster, Combat Infantryman Badge, Master Parachutist Badge, Expert Marksmanship Badge with Rifle Bar, Special Forces Tab, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with “60” Device, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation with Palm Device, Republic of Vietnam Civil Actions Honor Medal Unit Citation First Class, Republic of Vietnam Special Forces Honorary Jump Wings, Columbian Army Parachutist Badge.
In January 2015, Rodela was inducted as a “Distinguished Member of the Special Forces Regiment” in a private ceremony in San Antonio, Texas.