As much as the pain in his crippled body, the constant barrage of criticism at America’s involvement in Vietnam swelled the anger within his soul. On a daily basis he watched as the nightly news showed film of the American flag being burned, while he thought of those brave men he knew that were heading out for yet another mission on behalf of that flag. Each and every one willing to sacrifice it all and without complaint to serve their country.
He was one of them, or if the doctor’s diagnoses proved correct, once was.
Roy Benavidez’s war was over. Born in 1935, the stocky Texan of Mexican/Yaqui Indian descent, who had dropped out of school at 15 to help support his family, enlisted in the Army National Guard, then active Army and joined the fledgling Special Forces, now found his career and almost his life, torn apart. In 1965, while serving as an advisor to the ARVN (Army Republic of Vietnam), he stepped on a land mine. The explosion shredded his legs, leaving them useless.
After evacuation to the U.S., he lay in a ward at Brook Army Medical Center contemplating what doctors told him. He would never walk again, and must be medically discharged from the service he loved.
He would not let that happen.
For months while recovering with other wounded who were paralyzed or missing limbs, Benavidez eased himself out of bed after dark, and pulled himself with elbows and chin across the cold floor to a wall near his bed, where he would try to prop himself up unaided.
To the encouraging words of those watching him, the ritual, which often left him in tears from the unbearable pain, began to pay off. It started when he was able to wiggle his toes, then his feet. Afterwards, with a determination few men possess, he pushed with all his might the few feet up that wall. It felt like miles to climb.
It was slow, tedious, and pure hell, but as judgment day neared for his medical discharge, there he stood. Sometimes he got caught, of course, chewed out and forced back into bed, but that did not stop him. He succeeded when he should not have, and without delay forced himself to take those first steps
“Faith, determination and a positive attitude will take you farther than any ability. You can do it,” he remembered being told while in the Special Forces.
The day arrived when he had to prove it. Nine months had passed since the doctor stood in front of his bed ready to end his service.
Benavidez told the doctor he could stand.
“Sergeant I’m sorry, even if you’re able to stand up, you’ll never be able to walk.”
Benavidez rose from that bed and stood straight, pain bringing him to tears, and took short steps toward the man.
Impressed, the doctor offered: “Benavidez, if you can walk out of this room, I’ll tear up your discharge papers.”
Benavidez walked out of that room, and soon enough, out of the center itself, to head back to Fort Bragg and continue his therapy.
Despite the constant pain in his body, he trained and persevered to the point that he was well enough to receive assignment to Special Forces detachment B-56 and deploy to Vietnam in January 1968.
Running support missions for the elite Studies and Observation Group (SOG), Benavidez found himself back in his element, running constant patrols and more often than not, making contact with the enemy. Then after being in country less than four months, the day of May 2nd began. A moment in time that would forever change his life, and cause a future President of the United States to say, “If the story of his heroism were a movie script, you would not believe it.”
That morning at his base in Quan Loi, Benavidez watched choppers lift off carrying a 12-man SOG reconnaissance team to insert just across the Cambodian border, some 75 miles northwest of Saigon. The team consisted of three Americans and nine Nung indigenous troops. Their mission was to determine if enemy units used in the January 31st Tet offensive had retreated back across into their sanctuaries.
Not long after landing, the team made contact. They managed to shoot their way clear but came upon another enemy unit as they made their way back to be extracted. Another intense fight erupted just before the team reached the landing zone, and again they broke through. Once at the LZ, the NVA hit them in much greater strength, AK-47 rounds ripped into the team, while RPG and mortars shells exploded around them.
The American team leader fell dead, shot in the head, as well as half the Nungs. The rest of the team was wounded with some having been shot several times. Rescue choppers were driven away riddled with holes. A gunship was shot down.
Quan Loi’s radio room crackled with the team repeatedly pleading for help. They were about to be overrun.
“For God’s sakes, get us out of here!”
Benavidez was one of several listening to the pleas. He grew more upset by the minute as he realized no help was coming. Someone called for a volunteer to make one last attempt. Roy presented himself at once, and a Huey soon raced toward the trapped men.
In his haste to volunteer though, he soon realized he had left his M-16 and was armed only with a pocket knife.
Back at the LZ, what was left of the team prepared for the end when they heard the familiar chop of another Huey. As the helicopter hovered for a second, they saw a lone individual in the doorway making signs of the cross, throw a bag then rappel down into the jungle about a hundred yards away.
Benavidez picked up his medic bag and sprinted through the brush. Automatic weapons fire nipped at him from all sides, hitting him in the right leg. He stumbled, but kept running until he reached the decimated team. Gunfire still swarmed about him as he began bandaging wounds and injecting morphine, in addition to passing out more ammunition and offering encouraging words.
He picked up a rifle, got on the radio and called in airstrikes to relieve some of the fire, but it still shredded the air and ground about him, as intense as ever.
Another round tore into his right thigh as he called for another Huey. He threw a smoke grenade and continued exchanging fire with muzzle flashes in the jungle.
When the Huey came in he handed off his weapon and pulled a team member toward the chopper, when a round tore into his lungs, wounding him a third time. Almost unconscious, he fell to the ground then raised up looking for the chopper. It now lay on its side with 2 crew members dead.
He struggled up onto his feet, made his way to the aircraft and pulled survivors free before he was shot two more times.
He still did not stop.
Shrapnel tore into him as mortar rounds landed close, but he continued making his way back to the team.
Another gunship went down.
He lifted another man over his shoulder, and tried to make his way to meet a chopper coming in.
An NVA soldier pretending to be dead rose behind him screaming as he swung the butt of his weapon down upon Roy’s head, knocking him to his knees. Another swing caught him in the face. The NVA lunged him with a bayonet as he pulled his knife and took the soldier’s blade completely through the forearm. Then he slammed himself into the man driving the knife as far as he could. So far, in fact, he couldn’t pull it out.
He gathered up his wounded comrade and made it to the Huey, setting him aboard and refusing help for himself as he turned, picked up another rifle, and shot dead two more enemy.
He returned again and again, under never ending fire to bring out wounded. After that, his uniform completely stained with blood, he checked the perimeter and destroyed any item that could be of use to the enemy.
After all that, he allowed himself to be helped aboard… holding his intestines in his hands.
As he fell unconscious on the bloody floor of the chopper, his next battle was about to begin.
After they landed, someone positioned him on the side of the landing pad with dead enemy soldiers, and he felt himself being placed in a body bag with the zipper coming up.
“Stop. That’s Roy Benavidez!” someone shouted.
“Sorry, but there’s nothing I can do for him,” a doctor said.
The zipper started back up, then stopped.
Roy’s hand pushed through.
With all of his might, Roy made a final effort to live. Unable to speak, he sent a load of bloody spit onto the doctors face.
A little while later he was loaded onto a helicopter, only to witness one of the men he had saved die while holding his hand.
He underwent surgery and was transferred to Japan, and then to the U.S. for nearly a year’s worth of therapy. All told, Roy Benavidez had suffered seven bullet wounds, twenty eight shrapnel wounds and a bayonet wound.
When the paperwork was filed, Roy received the Distinguished Service Cross soon after and continued serving until retiring as a Master Sergeant in 1976.
In February 1981, thirteen years after his valor, and after numerous attempts to get the medal upgraded, Roy Benavidez stood before President Ronald Reagan as the Medal of Honor was finally placed around his neck.
Roy Benavidez devoted the rest of his life to visiting veterans and youth, encouraging them to get a good education.
I first heard of Roy Benavidez not long afterward when watching a television show as an eleven year old. I don’t remember any of the narrative, but I do remember what he said to a group of school children when one asked him about that fateful day.
“Did you ever feel like quitting?”
“No,” he said, “Americans don’t quit.”
Roy Benavidez passed away in 1998 from complications due to diabetes. He was 63.
Today, a navy ship and an elementary school, among other things, bear his name.
(Editor’s Note: This is our second post on MSG Benavidez. You can read our first post here. We’re in awe of Roy. ROBGB said it best: “He spoke at my high school pep rallies in the 90’s, I became a Green Beret 12 years later, he was my hero then and now.”)
(Featured Image Courtesy: commandposts.com)