The Marine security detachment [in Hanoi] presented Sgt. Maj. Len Koontz with a brick from Hoa Lo Prison, otherwise known as "The Hanoi Hilton" [where] American POWs were held. Koontz [though not a POW] was awarded the Navy Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor, for valor at Khe Sanh.
You'd never peg him for a hero.
Len's kind of short, bald, low-key. On Rob's bus he's sweet with everyone, cheerful and helpful. Retired after 30 years in the Corps, he's an internet engineer in Fairfax.
"I came back to go to one spot," Len says in a hotel dining room one night. "I lost two good buddies. It's one of the promises you make one another. You hold hands and hug each other and promise you'll come back together some day. But of course, they didn't come back."
He removes his glasses, wipes his eyes.
Len, 49, grew up working class in Pennsylvania, joined the Corps out of high school. Next thing he knew, he was at Khe Sanh. "I'd found my family. I always wanted to be a Marine."
He buddied up with Zack Taylor Addington of Georgia and Henry Earl Shelton of California. "The three of us just clicked. We fell in love with one another. It was a bond nobody could touch."
They were 19.
One day, Len drank from a well where the enemy had dumped bodies. He got diarrhea, and Zack took his place on point. "We got ambushed. Zack gets shot in the leg, and he falls. 'Lenny, come get me!' But I'm getting shot at too, and I can't move because I have the runs so bad.
"They shot him again and again, and he's calling for me to come get him, and I can't move."
He pauses, struggling.
"Consequently, Zack died of course."
Soon afterward, Shelton was on point as the platoon moved up Hill 542 "and he takes a .50-caliber round in the stomach. As he's falling, he takes another one in the head. A fierce firefight takes place, and I couldn't get him out of there. He was alone, dead."
The enemy drove the Americans down the hill. "In the morning we get reinforced and go back up with two platoons. Shelton isn't there anymore. They took his body and stripped it and mutilated him and stuck him in the middle of a bomb crater so we'd draw fire trying to get him. Two .50-caliber bunkers had the crater sighted in.
"I said, 'I'm getting Shelton out of there.' "
After destroying the bunkers and pulling his friend's body down the hill, Len went back under fire to save wounded Marines. As he picked one man up, "I pulled his left leg off. Both legs were missing. His intestines were hanging out.
"He looked at me and said, 'Lenny, why?' "
That was the day Len Koontz won the Navy Cross.
He doesn't think he did anything special "People just saw me and wrote it up, that's all. Thousands of others did the same.
"All they got was a Purple Heart, and a garden of stone."
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