Remember Your Regiment…

Former Green Beret, SFC Jose Rodela who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry in Vietnam, did not find the news that his award was being upgraded to the Medal of Honor, many years later in 2014 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 battle still haunt the veteran and he’d prefer to leave the battle and the results far away.

“I’m a little disturbed,” said Rodela, 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.”

Congress, several years ago, began scanning records of Black, Hispanic and Jewish troops to see if there was any bias that would have prevented them from receiving the Medal of Honor from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. 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.

Vietnam veterans Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Morris, Master Sgt. Jose Rodela, and Sgt. Santiago J. Erevia, along with 21 other veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, had their Distinguished Service Crosses upgraded to Medals of Honor. Here, they take part in a Medal of Honor presentation ceremony at the White House, March 18, 2014. Of the 24 who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, only Morris, Rodela and Erevia are living. (Department of Defense photo by J.D. Leipold, Army News Service, Defense Media Activity)

Rodela was born in Corpus Christi, TX and left school in his sophomore year because he was bored and looking for the discipline that the military offered. Rodela joined Special Forces and was assigned to Detachment B-36 of the 5th Special Forces Group, although an NCO was a company commander of a group of Cambodians, he helped to recruit, train and then lead into combat.

In an interview he did with the media 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 and the other SF NCOs would train them through basic combat training and then lead them into combat.

Rodela (center front row) with his Cambodian strikers

Rodela would sometimes recruit Vietnamese but 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, would get 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. The strikers lost 11 dead and 33 wounded.

During the battle, he was the only man moving, as he went from position to position, physically checking on the status of his men. Encouraging them, moving them to more stable defensive positions, checking on the wounded, he was an inspiration to the rest of the men. Despite being targeted by machine gun and rocket fire, he kept this up for the entire 18 hours and ignored his own wounds, shrapnel in his back and head.

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 who didn’t realize 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 lost his two best friends, Green Berets SSG Rudy Chavez and SFC Joe Haga who were killed in the intense firefight.

Rodela and his Cambodians came across an orphaned 12-year old boy who was all alone with no one in the jungle. He took him in and was planning on adopting the boy and bringing him to the United States. So the boy stayed with the unit and one night he stepped on a landmine and was killed. Rodela said, he had already thought of the boy as his own son and his death haunted him.

After Vietnam, Rodela was assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group and 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 but has 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, 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 was 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 gun fire. 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 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.

Citation represents Soldier’s rank at time of action.

Photos: US Army/DOD