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Obama honors veterans for actions in Vietnam

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

Alpha Troop's award 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.

The battle began when Charlie Company, a separate group of American infantrymen, stumbled on the enemy bunkers the morning of March 26, took heavy casualties and were quickly surrounded.

Based a few miles away, Poindexter, then 25, volunteered to take his outfit through the jungle to rescue the trapped "grunts." He did so, although his troop was exhausted from weeks in the field and still in shock from an accidental mortar explosion the night before that had killed several men.

As Alpha Troop pushed through the jungle, its men could see in the distance helicopters swooping low over the battlefield, Poindexter and Gutierrez said, and soon they could smell the smoke from the fighting. "It was pretty slow going," recalled Floyd Clark, 60, of Harrisonburg, a machine gunner. "You had a lot of time to think."

They arrived on the scene with a suddenness that surprised both sides, Poindexter said last week.

Gutierrez recalls being stunned by the sight of dead American soldiers, their bodies wrapped in ponchos, with their boots sticking out. "That . . . instilled in me that we were going to get in some serious business here," he said.

Poindexter ordered everyone to open fire with all weapons for a "mad minute," Gutierrez said, "just to kind of turn the flame on the kettle and see what comes to a boil, see what comes back."

Plenty came back, he said.

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