Lawrence Joel was a United States Army paratrooper who served in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Joel received the Silver Star and the Medal of Honor for his heroism on November 8, 1965, in a battle outside Bien Hoa against the Viet Cong. At the time, he was serving in South Vietnam as a medic with the rank of SP5 assigned to the 1st Battalion of the 503rd Infantry in the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

He was the first medic to earn the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War and the first living black American to receive the medal since the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Joel was born in 1928, the third of 16 children in a family that grew up very poor in Winston-Salem, NC. His family was in such poverty that he was raised by his next-door neighbors until he had reached the age of 18. He then joined the Merchant Marine. A year later, in 1946, he joined the U.S. Army. 

When the Vietnam war started his unit deployed to the country. By November 1968, although his unit had been in Vietnam for nearly four months, combat with the enemy had been sporadic and light. That was all about to change. 

Joel’s unit was conducting an all-day patrol searching for the Viet Cong. Joel recalled the initial operation as “fairly routine… just like back at Ft. Bragg — going to play war games.” But soon his unit was ambushed by a Viet Cong battalion that outnumbered the American paratroopers six to one.

When the Viet Cong sprang their ambush, nearly every soldier in the lead squad was killed or wounded. Joel was wounded twice in the initial burst of fire. He bandaged his own wounds, gave himself a shot of morphine, and set about taking care of the many wounded troops. 

Ignoring the calls from his commander to stay down, Joel moved amongst 13 wounded men, including one soldier who was suffering from a “sucking chest wound” and provided him with a makeshift bandage to keep his lung from deflating. 

Once he ran out of medical supplies, he went to the rear to get more and resumed taking care of his wounded paratroopers, hobbling along on a makeshift crutch while the battle raged around.