Correction to This Article
A photo caption misidentified a Vietnam veteran. He is Ray Moreno, not Ray Murano.

Army unit's Vietnam heroism finally recognized

Pasqual Gutierrez, who served in the Alpha Troop, First Squadron, 11th Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam, remembers the day his unit was called to rescue U.S. soldiers who were trapped by the North Vietnamese. Gutierrez says he sees the honor as representative of what many soldiers in his generation went through, a picture "bigger than us."
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The North Vietnamese soldiers were so close that Pasqual Gutierrez could see their eyes and faces as they darted among the bunkers in front of him.

Bullets banged off the armor of his tank. Rocket-propelled grenades had just cut down Sgt. Foreman, and wounded Capt. Poindexter. The fighting was so fierce that machine gun barrels overheated, and one comrade stuck cigarette filters in his ears to keep out the noise.

It was March 26, 1970. Location: A few Godforsaken acres of jungle, pocked by B-52 bomb craters, and now a stage where American tanks fired blasts of sharpened buckshot at an enemy who fought back from subterranean bunkers and could not be dislodged.

Tuesday in the White House Rose Garden, almost 40 years later, President Obama is scheduled to pay tribute to Gutierrez and about 80 other Vietnam veterans who fought in the savage, unnamed battle, which resulted in the rescue of a company of trapped fellow soldiers.

Gutierrez's outfit -- Alpha Troop, First Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment -- has been awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for its "extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry" in the fight, and the soldiers have been summoned to be honored.

A truck driver from Harrisonburg, an architect from California, a businessman from Texas, they have come from across the country, many having only in the last few months reopened that harrowing chapter of their lives, when as scared, young soldiers they stood face-to-face with the enemy, as Gutierrez says, in a kind of deadly prizefight.

"The analogy for me has always been: These two heavyweights stepping into the center of the ring," he said. "And then just going toe-to-toe, and pounding on each other . . . The first guy that connects, wins."

A 'mad minute' of fire

The Presidential Unit Citation, which was awarded to Alpha Troop in April, is the highest honor given to a military unit, and has been issued since World War II.

It was delayed in part because the unit's old commander, Houston businessman John Poindexter, said he realized only recently that many of his men had gone unrecognized. He compiled a book about the battle and used it in 2005 to file for the honor.

The award stems from an action in which Alpha Troop, under the command of then-Capt. Poindexter, volunteered to rescue about 80 American soldiers who were pinned down by an enemy battalion, according to official accounts. The battle took place along the Cambodian border, northwest of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City.

Poindexter had about 100 men in Alpha Troop, along with six light Sheridan tanks and about 14 Armored Cavalry Assault Vehicles, or A-cavs, bristling with machine guns. He had an additional 100 infantrymen assigned to him.

Gutierrez, now a 60-year-old California architect, was then a 21-year-old welder's son from East Los Angeles, and the commander of one of the lead tanks. A platoon sergeant, he sat in the turret hatch manning both a .50 caliber machine gun, and the tank's 152mm cannon, which he said he operated with his feet.

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