Obama honors veterans for actions in Vietnam

By Michael D. Shear and Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 20, 2009; 3:34 PM

President Obama on Tuesday honored a group of Vietnam veterans nearly 40 years after they helped save fellow soldiers in intense jungle fighting, actions that earned them the nation's highest decoration for a military unit.

Under a bright blue sky and flanked by 11 members of the Army unit -- Alpha Troop, First Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment -- Obama hailed them as unrecognized heroes whose actions that day decades ago should no longer remain unheralded.

"These men might be a little bit older, a little bit grayer," the president said. "But make no mistake, these men define the meaning of heroism and bravery."

As he presides over two wars himself, Obama said the country needs to reach into history to honor Alpha Troop because of the debt that Americans still owe to the men and women who battled in Vietnam.

"Now, some may wonder: After all these years, why honor this heroism now?" Obama said. "The answer is simple. Because we must. Because we have a sacred obligation. As a nation, we have an obligation to this troop. . . . We have an obligation to all who served in the jungles of Vietnam."

Paying tribute in the White House Rose Garden to about 80 Vietnam veterans who fought in the savage, unnamed battle that resulted in the rescue of a company of trapped soldiers, Obama said it was "one of the saddest episodes in American history" and "a national disgrace" that Vietnam veterans "were often shunned and neglected, even demonized when they came home." He added: "And on days such as this, we resolve to never let it happen again. . . . And so I say, it's never too late."

Obama held the ceremony to celebrate the awarding of a Presidential Unit Citation to Alpha Troop for its "extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry" in the fight.

In the action for which the members of the legendary Blackhorse Regiment were honored, 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 a sergeant and wounded a captain. 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.

A truck driver from Harrisonburg, an architect from California, a businessman from Texas, on Tuesday they came from across the country to receive the recognition, many having only in the past 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."

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