Al Rascon remembers it being like a one-lane bowling alley, with thick jungle lining both sides and at the far end, a North Vietnamese machine gun nest laying withering fire on his Army reconnaissance platoon.
Rascon was not even a U.S. citizen that day in March 1966 in the Mekong Delta, but he was a U.S. soldier. And, as a medic, he did not hesitate to rush forward through bullets and grenade fire to rescue injured comrades. His platoon mates were convinced that the man they called "Doc" had saved their lives. He was severely wounded himself.
Now, 33 years later, Rascon, 53, a resident of Howard County and the inspector general for the Selective Service System in Arlington, is close to being awarded the Medal of Honor, an honor his supporters say he should have received long ago.
The Senate passed a measure Thursday approving a Department of Defense recommendation that Rascon be awarded the nation's highest military honor. The measure must now be passed by the House and sent to President Clinton for his signature.
"Al Rascon's acts of heroism speak for themselves," said Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.), who has pushed the case for five years. "They represent what we are recognizing this . . . Memorial Day weekend."
About 20 percent of the recipients of the Medal of Honor have been immigrants, statistics show. Rascon would be the third Mexican immigrant to receive the honor, according to the office of Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), another supporter.
Rascon was born in the Mexican state of Chihuahua in 1945 and immigrated with his family to Southern California when he was 1 year old. When he graduated from high school, he pressured his parents to sign an age waiver so he could join the Army at 17 as a legal permanent resident.
"Being an immigrant to this country, it was an opportunity to give something back," Rascon said.
He volunteered to be a paratrooper and was sent to South Vietnam in 1965 as a medic with the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
During a patrol on March 16, 1966, Rascon's platoon was ambushed by North Vietnamese gunners. The platoon's point squad was pinned down by heavy machine gun fire and grenades, and several men fell wounded.
"Don't go forward or you're going to die, Doc," an officer told Rascon.
"Me being a medic, I didn't have much choice," Rascon said.
Despite the intense fire and exploding grenades, he dashed forward and used his own body to shield a wounded soldier while he gave first aid, and was shot in the hip. Rascon continued forward and retrieved a dead soldier's M-60 machine gun and ammunition, an act that may have saved the platoon from being overrun by the enemy.
As Rascon aided another wounded soldier, a hand grenade went off, ripping open his face. He continued his work and twice flung himself on wounded soldiers to protect them from the full force of enemy grenades.
One of those he rescued was his sergeant, Elmer Compton.
"I could see that he was in great pain," Compton told a congressional subcommittee last week. "He began to patch me up."
Several grenades landed a few feet from the two soldiers. "Without hesitation, Rascon jumped on me, taking me to the ground and covering me with his body," Compton said.
Despite the fact that he was severely wounded three times during the fight, Rascon continued to treat others who were injured, and he is credited with saving at least two lives. After the enemy dispersed, Rascon supervised the evacuation of the wounded and refused medical attention for himself until he collapsed, according to witness testimony.
Rascon makes no claim of great bravery and says simply, "Duty, honor and country ends up being for the people you were with that day."
He served another tour in Vietnam as an officer and went on to work for the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and Interpol before moving to his current position. He lives in Laurel with his wife, Carol, and their two children, Amanda, 11, and Alan, 8.
Rascon testified before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee last week on the contribution of immigrants to America's armed forces. "Although by birth immigrants are from other nations, they have served and continue to serve with pride and great distinction in the U.S. armed forces," Rascon testified.
His fellow soldiers had recommended in 1966 that Rascon be awarded the Medal of Honor, but the matter soon bogged down in paperwork. Rascon, who was awarded the Silver Star, never pursued the matter.
When his platoon mates learned of the omission at a reunion eight years ago, they began a campaign to get Rascon the Medal of Honor, an effort that is now approaching fruition.
Rascon said the fact that he did not hold U.S. citizenship when he served in Vietnam was never an issue to him or his Army mates. "I've always been an American in my heart," he said.
CAPTION: At a ceremony in California, Al Rascon was awarded the Silver Star by Capt. K.D. Thorson. Rascon's parents, right, signed an age waiver so he could join the U.S. Army at 17 and fight in Vietnam.