Duty, honor and country, in Alfred Rascon's words, sometimes boil down to taking care of the man next to you.
That's what Rascon did that day a third of a century ago when his Army platoon was pinned down during a fierce firefight in a Vietnamese jungle. Rascon, a medic, dashed through machine gun fire and grenade blasts to treat the wounded. Twice he jumped on top of wounded soldiers to save them from grenades, taking the shrapnel himself. He was shot as he shielded another soldier. A grenade exploded in his face, but he raced forward to retrieve an abandoned machine gun, saving the platoon from being overrun.
Rascon's actions on March 16, 1966, are remarkable, even by the standards of the Medal of Honor. But getting Rascon the medal has been a battle in itself after the original recommendation that he receive it was lost and efforts to correct the oversight foundered for years in the Pentagon bureaucracy.
Now, on Veterans Day, Rascon is on the verge of receiving the Medal of Honor. Papers were sent this week to President Clinton to award the nation's highest military honor to Rascon, who was born into poverty in Mexico and now serves as inspector general for the Selective Service System in Arlington.
Rascon, a 54-year-old soft-spoken Laurel resident with an easy wit, is uncomfortable about the pending honor. "It has nothing to do with me," said Rascon, forever known as "Doc" to his fellow soldiers. "It's just a matter of me doing what I had to do that day, like any other day. It just so happens it was a bad day."
But to Ray Compton and Neil Haffey, platoon mates who with other veterans pushed for years for Rascon's medal, it is a personal matter, as personal as it gets.
"I have a beautiful wife. I have four children and four grandchildren," Haffey said. "I wouldn't have any of that without Doc. I was dead."
Compton said: "You have to pay your debts. If you feel like you owe somebody your life, it's forever."
It was a debt Rascon figured he owed that prompted him to join the Army. Not long after he was born in 1945, his parents left the Mexican state of Chihuahua for California, where they worked as laborers and raised their only child in the town of Oxnard, north of Los Angeles.
There was no money for college, so Rascon badgered his parents to sign an age waiver and let him enlist in the Army at 17. Though not citizens, Rascon and his family were legal permanent residents, and he had always thought of himself as an American. This was how he could pay his country back.
After finishing jump school and being trained as a medic, Rascon was sent to Okinawa in 1964 to join the 173rd Airborne Brigade, created the previous year as a fire brigade for Southeast Asia. In May 1965, it was the first Army combat unit sent to South Vietnam.
For Rascon, at 19 a kid like the other paratroopers, there was no foreboding, only excitement. Almost immediately, the 173rd was engaged in deadly search-and-destroy missions, and Rascon's unit--the reconnaissance platoon for the headquarters company of the 1st Battalion, 503rd Regiment--was in the thick of it.
In March 1966, the 173rd was launched on Operation Silver City, a helicopter assault aimed at clearing the enemy from an area near the Song Be River in Long Khanh Province.
The platoon awoke March 16 to the sounds of a massive firefight in the distance. The brigade's 2nd Battalion had been surrounded by a reinforced North Vietnamese Army regiment and was being attacked from all directions. The fighting was desperate--according to soldiers, the NVA chained machine gunners to trees to ensure they would fight until the bitter end.
The 1st Battalion was sent to assist, and the recon platoon hurried toward the battle.
After several hours, Compton, the squad sergeant and point man, brought the recon platoon to a halt. Through the thick jungle, he'd spotted enemy soldiers about 20 yards ahead, nearly close enough to spit on. They were NVA regulars, wearing dark green uniforms with khaki pants and pith helmets. Compton reported the possible ambush to the platoon commander.
Haffey, a private first class, was ordered to fire his grenade launcher at the NVA position. The North Vietnamese responded with a ferocious barrage from machine guns and rifle grenades. To Haffey, it looked like it was snowing fire.
Rascon could hear cries for a medic from up front, about 25 yards in front of the main body of the platoon. Rascon started forward and kept going despite calls from Sgt. 1st Class Jacob Cooke, the platoon commander: "Stay down and keep out of the way, Doc, or you're going to get killed."
As he edged forward, Rascon saw that Pfc. William Thompson, a machine gunner, had been hit and was lying exposed on a trail, next to his M-60 machine gun and two boxes of extra ammo. Rascon reached Thompson and lay behind him, unable to get to his wounds. He could feel Thompson quivering as he was hit again by enemy fire.
Rascon crawled over Thompson, putting his own body in the path of the incoming fire. Almost immediately, Rascon was hit by shrapnel from a grenade. Then he felt a stinging pain, as if someone were slapping him. A bullet had hit him in the hip, ripped through him parallel to his spine and come out by his shoulder blade.
Rascon dragged Thompson off the trail. By the time they reached the cover of the jungle, the soldier was dead.
Behind him, Rascon could hear Pfc. Larry Gibson, the other machine gunner, yelling that he was running out of ammunition. Gibson was bleeding, and Rascon crawled over to check him. "Get the hell out of here, Doc. I'm okay," Gibson said.
But the wounded medic moved forward to Thompson's body. Rascon grabbed two bandoliers of machine gun bullets from Thompson's chest and brought them to Gibson, who was able to resume life-saving covering fire.
As Rascon searched for more soldiers to treat, a grenade exploded in front of him, throwing shrapnel in his face. Seconds later, another grenade ripped his mouth open.
"Oh, my God, my face is gone," Rascon thought. He could see blood spurting out, and it scared him. But he calmed himself. "You've got to take care of your people," he thought.
Rascon saw Haffey get hit, and then several grenades landed near him.
Haffey saw the grenades, too, and resigned himself to death. Then he felt a body on top of him. It was Doc. The grenades exploded, and Rascon took the blast. Rascon could hardly walk, and the pain was intense, but it seemed irrelevant. He began treating Haffey's bullet wound. "Neil, you're going to be okay," Rascon said. "Everything's fine. We're all going to make it."
Compton had seen Rascon jump on top of Haffey and catch the blast. He knew they both must have been killed. But suddenly Rascon was next to him, examining Compton's wounds. Then he felt Rascon's weight on top of him, knocking him to the ground.
Rascon had spotted another grenade coming in and had jumped on top of Compton. The medic had lost his hearing and was bleeding from the ears and nose. Rascon started to check Compton's condition.
The sergeant was incredulous. "Get your ass to the back," Compton gasped.
Rascon instead turned to Thompson's machine gun, still lying in the trail with two boxes of ammunition. NVA soldiers were inching toward it.
Haffey saw a blur run by; it was Doc. He was back on the trail, exposed to enemy fire, dragging the machine gun and ammunition off the trail so another soldier could take them.
With the additional firepower, the tide turned. The NVA broke off the fight, and the jungle grew quiet.
Rascon treated the wounded until others forcibly dragged him back. They reached a clearing zone, where the wounded and dead were being flown out in helicopters. Rascon's arms were draped over the shoulders of two soldiers. Rascon noticed a photographer coming toward him. He didn't want to be embarrassed.
"I'm going to walk," Rascon told the soldiers.
Rascon walked two or three steps, then fell back in the arms of his fellow soldiers.
"Common valor was a common-day issue there every day, especially on that day," Rascon says. "Everybody was a hero, because everyone was doing whatever they had to do to try to save their friends."
But those who saw Rascon's actions that day had no doubt that he merited the Medal of Honor.
"It did not surprise me, because that was Doc," said Gibson. "What surprised me was that he lived through it."
Compton recommended Rascon for the medal within days of the action, but in the confusion of the escalating war, it was not advanced up the chain of command. Instead, Rascon received the Silver Star.
Rascon was evacuated to Japan and underwent months of treatment for wounds that pain him to this day. He went to school, earning a commission as an officer, and rejoined the Army in 1969, volunteering in 1972 for a second tour in Vietnam as an adviser.
After leaving the Army, Rascon settled in Maryland in 1983 and began a law enforcement career with various Justice Department agencies. He met his wife, Carol, at Justice, and they have raised two children, Amanda, 11, and Alan, 8.
It was not until the early 1990s, when he began contacting his old platoon mates, that Rascon learned he had been nominated for the Medal of Honor.
"How does it feel to be a Congressional Medal of Honor winner?" Compton asked him in 1993, in their first conversation since leaving Vietnam.
"I don't know," Rascon replied.
Compton was outraged. "It's almost like what he did for us went unnoticed," he said.
Compton located other platoon members, including Haffey and Gibson, and they went to work resubmitting the nomination.
They ran into resistance from the Army Decorations Board, which, following regulations, turned it down because too much time had passed.
Eventually, Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.), an advocate for Vietnam veterans, took up the case, along with the Society of the 173rd Airborne Association.
Evans was frustrated with the Pentagon's refusal to reconsider cases with obvious merit or serious errors in processing.
"The Pentagon saw Al Rascon's case as setting a precedent they didn't like, and they were going to fight it every step of the way," Evans said.
Evans pushed the case to the White House, handing Clinton a package of material about the case at a social function in 1997.
Support for Rascon's case built as higher-ranking Army officials reviewed a fuller account of the action. Finally, the Pentagon recommended in May that Rascon receive the medal, and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen approved the measure last week.
Compton, Haffey, Gibson and other members of the platoon plan to be present later this year when Rascon receives the medal. Duty, honor and country will have come full circle.
"These guys were not going to give up," Rascon said. "Most of all, it's the honor of how much they care for me. That, to this day, dumbfounds me."
CAPTION: "Common valor was a common-day issue there every day," Rascon said.
CAPTION: In 1966, Army medic Alfred Rascon is helped to a landing zone after he was severely wounded protecting and treating his fellow soldiers.
CAPTION: After years of effort by veterans, the Pentagon has approved the award of the medal to Rascon.
CAPTION: Rascon recalls that after being wounded by grenades, he told himself, "You've got to take care of your people."