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Battle no longer anonymous

By the time the letter landed in his mailbox six years ago, Ray Moreno had long tried to put the Vietnam War behind him. He had packed away his Army uniform in 1971 -- and never put it on again after protesters at the San Francisco airport shouted “baby killer” at him when he returned from a terrifying year in the jungle.

He had worked for a time in construction, picked oranges and eventually became the supervisor of the Tulare County roads department.

Moreno opened the letter, uncertain of what was inside.

His former commander wanted to know if he would share his memories of one terrible day so men like him would finally receive the recognition they deserved.

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But Moreno did not respond. “I just wanted to be left alone,” he said.

::

(italics) This is an account of a desperate battle that no one bothered to name in a war few care to remember. (end italics)

-- John Poindexter, Troop A, 1st Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment

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Poindexter, Moreno’s lanky and debonair captain, had taken charge of Alpha Troop at the age of 25. His men numbered about 100. Most had been drafted, but Poindexter -- the son of a well-to-do Houston family with a history of military service dating to the Revolutionary War -- had volunteered.

His unit was assigned to a pocket of thick jungle about 60 miles northwest of Saigon, where engineers were rebuilding an old French road that soon would be used to invade Cambodia. The men lived in their vehicles and ate out of cans. In the rainy season, the place was like a swamp; in the dry season, a dusty furnace. There were almost daily firefights.

In the summer of 1970, Poindexter left Vietnam and didn’t look back. He finished graduate school in New York, made a fortune on Wall Street and built a successful manufacturing company in Houston.

Then, 33 years after leaving the war zone, he picked up a book titled “Into Cambodia, Spring Campaign, Summer Offensive” and found a two-page account of a bloody rescue mission he had led. For the first time, he realized that most of the men he had recommended for medals had never received them. “All these guys, they had been stiffed by me,” he said. “I assumed that it was done, and I was just dead wrong.”

In his files, Poindexter had a yellowing carbon copy of an unpublished article he had prepared for a military journal. The draft contained useful information, but he needed more. Getting his troops honored would require details, documentation, witness statements, maps.

So he turned to a veterans group for help finding his men. He needed them to share their recollections of the battle.

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(italics)

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Few people will ever find themselves in a situation so terrible, so desperate that they know within their deepest being that this is the day they will surely die. . . . Without [Alpha Troop], I and all the men of Charlie Company would be names on a wall in Washington, D.C. (end italics)

-- Kenneth Woodward, Company C, 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry (Airmobile) Division

March 26, 1970, was a bad day long before the sun came up. During the night, the soldiers of Alpha Troop, 1st Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment had circled their tanks like a wagon train in the Vietnamese jungle. But a faulty round inside a mortar carrier ignited, killing three troops and injuring a dozen.

In the morning, a ferocious gun battle erupted less than three miles away. A company of about 100 infantrymen from the 1st Cavalry (Airmobile) Division had stumbled into a North Vietnamese army bunker complex near the Cambodian border. They were pinned down, outnumbered 4 to 1, and taking huge casualties. Helicopters couldn’t get in close enough to drop off ammunition or evacuate the wounded. It seemed the entire company would be wiped out.

Poindexter ordered his men and another company of infantrymen to “mount up.” They were going to rescue those “grunts.”

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(italics) It’s easy to pick out Vietnam veterans in a crowd whenever a helicopter flies overhead. It’s those 50- to 60-year-old guys looking up and just staring into a time gone by. (end italics)

-- Pasqual Gutierrez, Troop A, 1st Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment

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Gutierrez had arrived in Vietnam as a 20-year-old staff sergeant -- a “Shake-'N'-Bake NCO” as the Army’s fast-track noncommissioned officers were then called. Within months, the East Los Angeles native was promoted to platoon sergeant, replacing a much older and more experienced man who had been wounded on patrol.

When Alpha Troop set off on the rescue mission, he expected little resistance.

“Who in their right minds would ever challenge an armor unit?” he said recently at the sleek Ontario office of HMC Architects, where he is now an owner and director.

Alpha Troop punched through thick forest for two hours to reach the trapped infantrymen. When they burst into the firefight, all guns fell silent. Gutierrez was puzzled to see rows of ponchos on the ground. They were wrapped up like burritos, he said, with boots sticking out.

With a sickening feeling, he realized that he was looking at dead and injured American soldiers. Without warning, he heard an explosion and saw a trail of smoke coming at him. A rocket-propelled grenade narrowly missed his tank.

For an earsplitting minute, Alpha Troop opened up with every cannon and machine gun it had, leveling the trees in front of them. When the dust settled, the huge enemy bunker complex came into view.

Gutierrez could see shadows flitting between the structures. As he watched, the nose of a grenade launcher emerged from a bunker, then another and another. The fight was on.

“The intensity just never let up,” Gutierrez said.

A loud explosion spun Gutierrez around in his hatch. Sgt. 1st Class Robert Foreman, 31, another platoon sergeant, had taken a grenade to the chest. Poindexter, in a nearby tank, grimaced as shrapnel struck him.

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(italics) Just the day before the battle, I talked with Sergeant Foreman about returning to California to take up life where we had left off. He had a wife back in Monterey, near Fort Ord. I wanted to finish getting my BA degree and teacher’s credentials. I had enrolled in the Army correspondence program with the University of California at Berkeley. The books had arrived out in the field. (end italics)

-- Craig Wright, Troop A, 1st Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment

Wright, then a 24-year-old conscientious objector, was sent to Vietnam as an unarmed medic. In the heat of battle, he struggled through thick underbrush and whining bullets to reach Foreman. Peering down the tank’s hatch, all he could see was a blur of blood and fatty tissue.

“I told myself not to think about it,” Wright, now retired in Whittier, wrote to Poindexter years later. “It was such a traumatic sight that it would have disabled me.”

Wright ran to the next tank to wrap Poindexter’s bloodied hand. He got back to his own vehicle as a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into the side. He patched up two faces before accepting help to bandage his own arm. His new college books were scorched beyond repair.

At nightfall, Poindexter ordered his men to retreat. The survivors piled the dead and the wounded onto the vehicles. They had to use flares to see the way.

Although no official tally was recorded, Poindexter said at least seven Americans were killed and 69 wounded in 24 hours. The next day, the exhausted survivors returned to find the complex abandoned. The stench of death lingered.

::

Until he started to hear from his former troops, Poindexter had looked back at the battle on March 26, 1970, with a commander’s detachment. Reading his men’s letters and e-mails, he saw it for the first time through their terrified eyes.

He also quickly realized that he could never get individual awards for all those deserving. Of those he could find, many reached by letter or phone did not respond. Others had died.

“These men were not thanked. Not all were treated respectfully,” Poindexter said. “For these reasons, I felt we should apply for the Presidential Unit Citation so all could be honored without favor.”

The blue ribbon, the nation’s highest honor for a military unit, has been awarded about 100 times since it was created during World War II.

When Poindexter finished compiling the necessary paperwork, the application was 6 inches thick. Worried that the drama would be lost in the dry and bureaucratic language required on military forms, he tucked in “The Anonymous Battle,” a book he had compiled with his men’s letters and his own article.

Finally, in April, a package containing the Presidential Unit Citation arrived in the mail at Ft. Irwin in Southern California. As is the custom, it was issued to the current members of Alpha Troop. But on Tuesday, the men who fought so bravely 39 years ago were honored at ceremonies at the White House and Pentagon.

For the first time since he returned from the jungle, Moreno pulled out his old war medals and pinned them to his suit. The diminutive man, with a shy and gentle demeanor, took his place with Gutierrez, Wright and more than 80 other Alpha Troop members in the White House’s Rose Garden.

President Obama told the graying ex-soldiers, some of them in wheelchairs, that the treatment of Vietnam veterans has been a “national disgrace.”

“One of the saddest episodes in American history was the fact that these vets were often shunned and neglected, even demonized when they came home,” Obama said. “And on days such as this, we resolve to never let it happen again.”

Moreno listened solemnly. Barely 19 when he was drafted, he had spent most of his adult life fleeing the stigma of being a Vietnam vet. Tormented by nightmares, he refused to discuss the experience even with his wife.

“I am proud of it now,” he said, offering his hope that no other veterans would go through what he did. “The men and women who serve should always be treated with honor.”

--

alexandra.zavis@latimes.com


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