It happened during the “six hours in hell,” he would later say of the 1968 battle, where he held his intestines in his hand, stabbed an enemy soldier to death and loaded the wounded and dead onto a second helicopter. Benavidez said he had so many injuries and was so bloodied, he was mistaken for a dead man and stuffed in a body bag until he spat in a doctor’s face.
President Ronald Reagan hung the Medal of Honor around his neck in 1981, saying his survival that day, during an assault by about 1,000 North Vietnamese regulars, was so incredible that if it were a movie, it would be rejected as laughably over-the-top.
Then there is John Bell Hood, who resigned his Army commission at the onset of the Civil War to lead Confederate insurrectionists against the United States. Flashes of brilliance in his earlier campaigns were overshadowed by “reckless” command that sped the fall of Atlanta, one historian wrote, and his losses at the Battle of Franklin were so disastrous that it has been called the Pickett’s Charge of the West.
But in Benavidez’s home state of Texas, where he was raised as the orphaned son of a poor sharecropper who went on to be honored by the president, it is the Kentuckian name of “Hood” that everyone knows.
Hood, of course, is the namesake of Fort Hood — one of the world’s largest military installations — nestled in Central Texas.
The League of United Latin American Citizens, an advocacy group, is urging the Army to rename the base after the home-state hero. The plea comes amid a national reckoning of how to grapple with Confederate symbolism that haunts the American identity more than a century and a half after Appomattox.
But the movement to cleanse racist symbols is not the primary motivation for installing Benavidez’s name at the gates of Fort Hood, said Jorge Haynes, a member of the Latin American league.
“It’s about someone who put his life on the line and suffered every day of his life after that,” he said, adding that more contemporary figures should be considered.
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Guy Gabaldon, a Marine who single-handedly persuaded more than 1,000 Japanese to surrender on Saipan, would be another ideal candidate, he said. So would any number of Navajo and Comanche troops whose uncrackable languages contributed to victory in World War II. Or the heavily decorated Japanese American soldiers of the 442nd Infantry Regiment. Or the African American pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
What they have in common: They are all minority service members representing comrades with far less recognition than generals who committed sedition.
“It’s making the record complete,” Haynes said. “There are other heroes.”
It is unclear whether acting Army secretary Ryan McCarthy has received the league’s request; an Army spokeswoman did not return a request for comment.
The 2020 defense budget includes a resolution to ban installations from being named after Confederate icons, but it does not call for renaming existing bases.
Base names have drawn on historical figures, but politicians and other figures jostled to name them, the Army has said, leading states to contribute names for consideration.
Texas produced Hood, though he was only wounded there before the Civil War and later led a Texas regiment. He lived out his postwar life in New Orleans.
But Benavidez is 100 percent Texas, born in small-town Cuero, southwest of Houston. He was the son of a Mexican American sharecropper and a Yaqui Indian mother, and he lost both before he was 9 years old. He dropped out of school to pick beets and cotton, enlisted in the Army at 19 and served in Korea.
The first of five Purple Hearts came on his first tour in Vietnam, in 1964, when a land mine shredded his body in an explosion. Doctors said he was unlikely to walk again. Then he became a Green Beret.
Four years later, his battlefield exploits became instant legend among Army Special Forces.
When he heard over the radio that a 12-man team — three Green Berets and nine Montagnard tribesmen — was ambushed by hundreds of insurgents, with screams of “get us out of here” going unanswered by helicopters unable to land, Benavidez rushed without a weapon to a Huey headed toward the battle.
He leaped from the helicopter before it touched down, ran 75 meters to the stranded group and was shot multiple times before he got there. He collected sensitive documents from the dead team leader, organized a defense and loaded the team members onto the helicopter. Enemy gunfire raked the Huey, killing the pilot Larry McKibben. The helicopter cratered and burned.
Benavidez pulled the men from the wreckage, gave them water and called in airstrikes. As Benavidez later led them to another helicopter, enemy troops shattered his jaw with a rifle butt and prodded him with bayonets. He stabbed an attacker to death before getting on board to safety. Benavidez saved eight men and, slick with blood, was mistaken for dead.
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Following his medical retirement in 1976 as an Army Master Sgt., Benavidez advocated for children’s education to extend opportunities he never had, Haynes said. He died in 1998.
His name is on a stretch of highway, a Navy cargo ship, a short graphic novel, a commemorative GI Joe and, in a nod to his passion for education, several Texas schools.
If the students in those schools want to walk in Benavidez’s footsteps as a Green Beret, they would need to begin in two places — Fort Benning in Georgia for infantry training, then specialized training at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
Both of those bases are named after Confederate generals.
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