Gordon H. Mansfield, who was twice shot in the spine during combat operations in Vietnam, became a leading advocate for disabled veterans and retired as a top official of the Department of Veterans Affairs, died Jan. 29 at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington. He was 71.
He died of a heart ailment, said his wife, Linda Mansfield. He had homes in St. Michaels, Md., and Naples, Fla.
Mr. Mansfield, a Massachusetts native, joined the Army in 1964 and served two tours of duty in Vietnam. During the Tet Offensive of 1968, in which tens of thousands of North Vietnamese troops attacked South Vietnamese cities, Mr. Mansfield was the commanding officer of an airborne infantry company assigned to a search-and-clear operation.
His platoon came under intense enemy fire near Hai Lang that Feb. 4. When one group of soldiers was pinned down amid withering fire, he advanced with five men to the enemy’s flank and led an attack that largely silenced the guns.
While attempting to move wounded soldiers to safety, he was shot twice in the spine by an enemy combatant. He refused aid until his entire platoon was evacuated to safety.
He received the Distinguished Service Cross, the highest award for valor after the Medal of Honor.
Mr. Mansfield, who was left a paraplegic from his injuries and underwent therapy and treatment for five years, graduated from law school and practiced law in Ocala, Fla., before joining the Paralyzed Veterans of America in 1981. He worked 15 years with the nonprofit organization, ultimately becoming executive director.
Through the group, he championed the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986, which prohibited discrimination against disabled travelers on airlines, and the sweeping Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.
Mr. Mansfield also was a force in the effort to make the Veterans Administration the Cabinet-level Department of Veterans Affairs in 1989, said Douglas Vollmer, associate executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America.
On leave from the advocacy group, Mr. Mansfield served as the assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity at the Department of Housing and Urban Development from 1989 to 1993. During that time, he promoted accessible and affordable housing for disabled people.
Mr. Mansfield joined the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2001. He became assistant secretary for congressional and legislative affairs and then deputy secretary and chief operating officer before retiring in 2009. He had briefly been acting secretary of the department in 2007.
As deputy secretary, he advocated for the wounded and “helped oversee a more effective and efficient reformation of the health-care procurement and disabilities compensation claims systems,” said former VA secretary Anthony J. Principi.
Gordon Hall Mansfield was born Sept. 15, 1941, in Pittsfield, Mass. He was a 1964 graduate of Villanova University in Radnor Township, Pa., and received a law degree from the University of Miami in 1973. Decades later, he did graduate work in theology from Christendom College in Front Royal.
Besides the Distinguished Service Cross, his military honors included the Bronze Star Medal and two awards of the Purple Heart. His other awards included the Defense Department’s Distinguished Public Service Medal in 2008.
His first marriage, to Suzanne Petroske, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 25 years, Linda Coughtry Mansfield of St. Michaels; two sons from his first marriage, Gordon P. Mansfield of Leesburg and Leon Mansfield of Ashburn; three sisters; one brother; and four grandchildren.
In retirement, Mr. Mansfield served on the board of the Wounded Warrior Project, a charitable group that helps severely injured service members, and the Disabled Veterans’ Life Memorial Foundation, a group working to build a memorial on the Mall.
In 2010, a housing community for homeless veterans was dedicated in his honor and built in Pittsfield by the veterans’ nonprofit organization Soldier On.