Jon Cavaiani dies at 70; desperate stand in ’71 led to Medal of Honor

 Jon Cavaiani
Jon Cavaiani wearing the Medal of Honor. Cavaiani once confided to a reporter that the events surrounding the medal felt like a part of his private life made painfully public.
(Joan Barnett Lee, Modesto Bee)

In the end, it was Jon Cavaiani alone, standing in full view of North Vietnamese attackers, swinging a machine gun indiscriminately as his fellow soldiers ran pell-mell for their lives.

It was an act of desperation by the 27-year-old serviceman -- frantic, improvised, predicated not on strategy but on a stark, irreducible fact: Everything else had gone horribly wrong.




Aug. 2, 1:26 p.m.: The headline and a caption in an earlier version of this obituary misspelled Jon Cavaiani’s last name as Caviani.


Cavaiani’s instinct to wing it that day – to cover the disorderly retreat of his remaining platoon of Vietnamese Montagnards on June 5, 1971 -- would result in his receiving the Medal of Honor from President Ford.

It would also earn him burns and shrapnel wounds over much of his body, a wretched 11-day quest for survival, and 23 months in a POW camp. He would live the rest of his days with the Medal of Honor recipient’s paradox – lifelong recognition for memories that were at best burdensome, at worst annihilating.


“You try to spend a lot of time forgetting about the war, and then they call you to the White House to give you a reward and remind you of those things,” the 31-year Army Special Forces veteran told The Times of Shreveport, La., in 2002.

Jon R. Cavaiani, who died Tuesday in Stanford, Calif., at the age of 70 of leukemia, made the best of it. Into his final years, he spoke, taught and advocated for veterans, talked up patriotism and was sought for appearances and interviews as are many recipients of the nation’s highest award for bravery in combat.

Along the way, he used the platform the medal afforded to speak forthrightly about the post-traumatic stress he endured, the prescription medications, the lasting psychological problems, and the ambivalence he felt bearing that conspicuous label of combat hero.

When people asked him about the medal, he stuck to platitudes. His stock answer reduced what people called valor to a humbler brew of strict necessity: “I couldn’t outrun ‘em, I had to fight ‘em,” he would say.

The explanation had the same tone, if not content, as the discussions he had among intimates. “He felt he could do it, so he did it,” said longtime friend Mike Reilly, summing up Cavaiani’s description of his acts. He once confided to a reporter that the events surrounding the medal felt like a part of his private life made painfully public.

Born Aug. 2, 1943, in Royston, England, Cavaiani came to America as a child and became a citizen in 1968. Shortly after, he joined the Army. He served with the 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam.

Assigned as platoon leader to a secret radio relay site in enemy territory near Khe Sanh in 1971, he woke up the morning of June 4 to find the camp under attack. According to the medal citation, Cavaiani led the hopeless fight all that day, moving about the camp perimeter and directing his platoon’s fire. Helicopters succeeded in evacuating most the group. But intense fire prevented rescue of the soldiers who remained–Vietnamese highlanders called Montagnards recruited to fight alongside the Special Forces.

Cavaiani’s official citation states that he “unhesitatingly volunteered” to remain in the landing zone to direct helicopters and was later unable to escape. But Cavaiani gave a different account in a videotaped interview years later for the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation, created by the society of the same name which confirmed his death. 


He said he was commanded to abandon the Montagnards that June 4. “You gotta be frickin’ joking,” he recalled thinking when the order came down. He defied it.

By the next morning, his group was overwhelmed and forced to run. Cavaiani, in desperation, stood atop a bunker in plain sight and swept a machine gun from side to side for cover. It was crazy. Belatedly realizing this, Cavaiani tried to get down, turning away from the gunfire. A bullet hit him in the back, he said. When the camp was overrun, he played dead, lying still as a victor examined his boots for plunder.

He survived wounded alone in the countryside until his capture, and was released in March 1973. He received the Medal of Honor in 1974 and served with the Special Forces until 1990, retiring at the rank of sergeant major and teaching in the ROTC program at UC Davis.

He and his wife Barbara Elf had a rural property in Columbia, Calif. It was his fifth marriage, according to the Modesto Bee, lasting from 1992 until his death. Cavaiani credited Elf with his emotional survival.

Friends described him as cheerful and outgoing despite his personal turmoil -- a bearded intellectual who spoke several languages, loved cooking and reading, and raised money for families of fallen soldiers and police officers. He worked frequently to meet the demands of the medal, giving speeches, teaching schoolchildren, even though “he had issues; most of ‘em do,” said Carol Cepregi, director of operations of the medal society.

Cavaiani is to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery per his request, said Reilly, a funeral director who is handling arrangements.