The Green Beret compound pulsated with activity as gunships covered with bullet holes limped back from the fight. Benavidez pulled the body of a soldier from one aircraft and surveyed the damage.
Another helicopter’s blades whirred, preparing to take off for a last-ditch effort to rescue the team. The crew needed a bellyman — a soldier who protects the crew and scoops up soldiers from hot landing zones.
Benavidez, a stout pack of dynamite who earned the call sign Tango Mike Mike — That Mean Mexican — had only a knife as a weapon and a bottle of Tabasco. He produced a medical bag. “I’m in,” Benavidez said, according to the book “Legend,” which recounts the incident.
The next few hours of May 2, 1968, would make Benavidez an instant icon of the Vietnam War after fighting nearly to the death on the fringes of a Cambodian jungle.
That battle has also thrust Benavidez’s legacy into a reckoning over race in the United States, which has included calls to remove the names of Confederate officers from Army installations. Benavidez has become the most prominent candidate in a campaign to rename one of the Army’s largest posts, Fort Hood, in Central Texas, after someone from the state.
Proponents have said renaming the post after Benavidez, the son of a Mexican American sharecropper and a Yaqui Indian mother, would also help draw attention to the contributions of minority service members, which have long been overlooked.
Efforts to rename the posts won the support of defense officials but were shot down this summer by President Trump.
But changing Fort Hood’s name to Fort Benavidez would renew his story, retold through books, graphic novels and even a G.I. Joe, of the day Benavidez arrived on a battlefield without a rifle and left with eight survivors.
The mettle he showed, wrote Brian O’Connor, a Green Beret on the ground that day, “borders on the realm of the humanly impossible.”
Becoming Fort Hood
Fort Hood, like other posts named after Confederates, was built in the Jim Crow era during the world wars. All 10 were constructed in former Confederate states: Virginia, Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, North Carolina and Texas.
Critics have said the post names deify traitors who killed U.S. soldiers to protect the institution of slavery.
The national rights group League of United Latin American Citizens mounted a campaign last year to rename the post after Benavidez, a longtime supporter of the group who died in 1998. The protests this summer reignited the proposal.
In June, then-Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said they were open to renaming the posts, a decision that falls under McCarthy’s authority. But Trump said the administration would not “even consider” any changes.
A defense bill that included a measure to rename the posts was delayed until after the election. It is unclear whether Trump will accept the measure before Inauguration Day, but President-elect Joe Biden said in June that he supported it.
“We are confident Congress and the president will reach an enduring solution that will benefit the entire nation,” the Army said before the election.
Naming conventions in the past called for soldiers with regional ties, according to the Army, and historians floated four candidates, including Maj. Gen. Robert L. Howze, a Medal of Honor recipient who served in World War I and other conflicts, and Capt. James. W. Fannin, an officer executed in 1836 during the Texas Revolution.
But another name was chosen for the Texas camp outside Killeen: Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood, a native of Kentucky who resigned his U.S. Army commission and commanded Texas soldiers but lived his postwar life in Louisiana.
Hood was inept in later command, absorbing huge losses at Franklin, and his defeat at Atlanta hastened President Abraham Lincoln’s reelection, said Ty Seidule, a retired Army general who taught history at the U.S. Military Academy.
In Georgia, the United Daughters of the Confederacy lobbied to name a new post in Columbus after local Henry L. Benning, a Confederate general. Benning, arguing for secession, warned that abolition would win rights for Black people. The Army also denied efforts in 1945 to rename Camp Hood after its previous commander because it feared “undesirable popular and political repercussions” in Texas, the history said.
There are few reasons to keep the names when there are alternatives, Seidule said, and Benavidez exudes a dedication to the United States that Hood surrendered.
“Who we honor should represent our values,” he said. “I don’t want to be like John Bell Hood. I want to be like Roy Benavidez.”
May 2, 1968
The 12-man Special Forces team, part of the secretive effort to destabilize the communist insurgency’s presence in Cambodia, had splintered by the time Benavidez leaped from a helicopter onto the battlefield.
The objective was to capture an enemy soldier or vehicle to prove that the veins of the Ho Chi Minh Trail — used to move soldiers and supplies — crisscrossed the border, according to “Legend” by Eric Blehm, which was used to reconstruct the battle along with Benavidez’s Medal of Honor citations, speeches and an interview with O’Connor.
The three Green Berets and nine Montagnard tribesmen ended up at the doorstep of a large enemy headquarters, which may have held hundreds of soldiers. The team had lost several men, including its leader, Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Wright, and everyone else was wounded by the time Benavidez arrived.
Benavidez sprinted toward the men as rifle fire sizzled through the grass. He was shot twice, including in the face, and his body was pierced with shrapnel before loading several wounded men onto the hovering helicopter.
He was carrying Wright’s body to the helicopter when a rifle bullet tumbled through his back.
Gunfire raked the helicopter at the same moment, bringing it down with a fierce explosion. Benavidez picked through the wreckage for survivors. The pilot was dead. Just Benavidez and eight others were left to mount a defense against fighters arriving by the truckload.
Benavidez organized a perimeter and called in airstrikes while doling out morphine. Weapons were scavenged from the dead and ammunition rationed as the men sipped on warm water taken from dead enemy troops.
Another evacuation helicopter pierced through smoke on the battlefield, signaling the last chance of salvation for the team, and Benavidez carried Staff Sgt. Lloyd Mousseau to the waiting aircraft.
An enemy emerged from the grass behind Benavidez, shattering his jaw with a rifle butt. The guerrilla slashed Benavidez with his bayonet, and both men tumbled to the ground.
Benavidez stabbed him to death and fatally shot two more attackers near the helicopter.
Then a crew member glimpsed his wounds.
Benavidez held in his own intestines with his forearm as he helped load some survivors and bodies of the dead. He walked away to oversee recovery of the remaining men.
O’Connor staggered to the helicopter, telling Benavidez that his interpreter was still on the ground. O’Connor and others piled inside as Benavidez disappeared into the wood line.
The helicopter shuddered with enemy fire and the door gunner was shot twice. O’Connor peered out the open door to see Benavidez carrying the interpreter.
Benavidez was firing at the enemy when the crew pulled him aboard, six hours after the mission began.
“If Roy did not come in,” O’Connor said, “there is no way we would have survived.”
‘I spit in the doctor’s face’
In the helicopter, where Mousseau died at his side, Benavidez crawled over the bodies of the living and the dead.
His eyes crusted shut with blood. He couldn’t speak.
In his haste to retrieve bodies of comrades, Benavidez mistakenly loaded the helicopter with the bodies of three enemies.
Medics surveyed his face and believed he was Asian, Benavidez later said. They grouped him with the enemy and stuffed him into a body bag.
A soldier began zipping it up when another alerted a doctor that Benavidez was an American. He pleaded with a doctor to check for a heartbeat.
Benavidez contemplated how he could show he was alive.
“When I felt that hand on my chest, I made the luckiest shot I ever made in my life,” Benavidez recalled in a speech years later.
“I spit in the doctor’s face.”
Benavidez, with more than 30 wounds and half a lung removed, spent nearly a year in recovery. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross but initially denied the Medal of Honor because officials did not want to highlight U.S. activity in Cambodia, O’Connor speculated.
Benavidez also needed a witness statement, but he believed O’Connor, the sole American survivor of the original team, had died. In 1980, O’Connor learned of Benavidez’s efforts to upgrade his medal and penned a battlefield account.
President Ronald Reagan draped the Medal of Honor around Benavidez’s neck a year later. The citation does not mention Cambodia.
Benavidez often demurred when called a hero, his son Noel Benavidez said, and used those opportunities to highlight the war dead and their grieving families. He spent the last years of his life focused on educating children.
That modesty would humble his father if he knew about the effort to christen Fort Benavidez, he said.
“Knowing him,” Noel Benavidez said, “he’d probably crack a joke about it.”