Vietnam Medic Given Medal of Honor
WASHINGTON (AP) _ His Army uniform aglow with ribbons and his eyes trained on the floor, Alfred Rascon seemed embarrassed to be at the White House on Tuesday receiving lavish praise _ much less America’s highest military honor.
Only after President Clinton draped the Medal of Honor around his neck did a smile play across Rascon’s face. He had glanced at the men he covered with his body in a Vietnamese jungle 34 years ago to absorb grenade blasts and shrapnel that would have killed them and almost killed him.
``The honor is not really mine,″ Rascon said. ``It ends up being those who were with me that day.″ He asked the guys from his platoon to stand up, and they did, tears welling in their eyes. The former Army medic accepted his medal and saluted the commander in chief who presented it.
It was a glorious moment long denied to Rascon, 54, the son of Mexican immigrants, who joined the Army out of love for his adopted homeland. He was not yet a U.S. citizen when he went to Vietnam. But when, recovered from his wounds, he returned to Vietnam later in the war, it was as an American.
``This man gave everything he had, utterly and selflessly, to protect his platoon mates and the nation he was still not yet a citizen of,″ Clinton said. ``You have honored us by your choice to become an American. ... Thank you for reminding us that being an American has nothing to do with the place of your birth, the color of your skin, the language of your parents or the way you worship God.″
Rascon is not the first immigrant to receive the Medal of Honor. Immigrants received one in five of the 3,427 medals authorized since the honor was created in 1861. There are 166 living Medal of Honor recipients.
Within days of his battlefield bravery, Rascon was recommended for the Medal of Honor by the men he saved. The paperwork was lost, as Clinton said, ``in a thicket of red tape,″ and Rascon received the Silver Star instead.
``But it wasn’t what we had written up,″ one of the men, Ray Compton, told reporters Tuesday. ``Neither one of us would be here today if it hadn’t been for Al. Maybe not in his own eyes, but in our eyes, he’s a hero. No doubt about it.″
Compton said he wasn’t aware that Rascon never received the honor until, in 1993, he asked Rascon what it was like to have the Medal of Honor. Rascon replied that he didn’t know.
Compton, fellow platoon members Neil Haffey and Larry Gibson and other veterans sought to correct the oversight.
They received a pivotal assist from Rep. Lane Evans, D-Ill., an advocate for Vietnam veterans. The Pentagon would not reconsider Rascon’s case because so much time had elapsed, so Evans gave a packet of information about it to President Clinton in 1997.
The Pentagon relented last May, and Defense Secretary William Cohen approved the honor in November.
Clinton praised Rascon for his ``long, patient wait for recognition″ and the continual commitment to serving his country that he has displayed since March 16, 1966.
That day, Rascon’s platoon came under attack in a Vietnamese jungle. The young medic ignored orders to stay down and ran past flying bullets to get to Haffey, who was wounded. Rascon was shot in the hip and suffered several shrapnel wounds. A grenade exploded in his face.
Still, Rascon dragged Haffey to safety. Despite his wounds, he went out again to deliver ammunition to a machine gunner. He then covered Compton and Gibson with his body to protect them from harm as he treated their wounds.
``Through this extraordinary succession of courageous acts, he never gave a single thought to himself,″ Clinton said. ``Except, he admits, for the instant when the grenade exploded near his face, and he thought, `Oh God, my good looks are gone.‴
Rascon was so badly wounded that last rites were administered. He nevertheless recuperated at an Army hospital in Japan and was discharged in May 1966.
Rascon went on to be graduated from college and the Army’s Infantry Officer Candidate School. A native of Chihuahua, Mexico, Rascon was naturalized an American in 1967 and returned to Vietnam for a second tour in the 1970s, this time as a military adviser.
Rascon, a civil servant since 1983, is inspector general of the Selective Service System in Arlington, Va. He lives in Laurel, Md., with his wife and two children.