Long after leaving the battlefields of Southeast Asia, Medal of Honor winner Roy Benavidez fought on. His new war was a private one-a battle against apathy toward flag and country.
Benavidez was a walking, talking Vietnam memorial. Late in life, he was a short, bulky man more than a few pounds over his jungle-fighting weight of 140; his bulldog jowls and dark eyes were accentuated by black hair cropped in a GI brush too short to hide the scars in his skull. His thick arms were criss-crossed with so many bayonet scars they looked like a map of the meandering farm roads leading to his South Texas home in El Campo.
Seriously injured after stepping on a land mine in 1965, he returned to the war in 1968, only to come back again five months later, his body riddled with 28 bullet and shrapnel wounds. After that, his mouth was slightly disfigured and he spoke with a lisp, permanent reminders of the rifle butt he took in the mouth from a North Vietnamese soldier. He killed the enemy.
Benavidez retired from the Army in 1976 after 21 years of service. When he hung up his uniform for the last time, he took with him a military pension, disability benefits and shards of shrapnel still embedded in his skull and in his heart.
Benavidez, an Army Green Beret, won the nation’s highest award for combat gallantry for his actions in Cambodia on May 2, 1968. That’s the day he intercepted a radio call for help from a dozen embattled Special Forces soldiers, leapt onto a helicopter and into what he later called “six hours of hell.”
Struggling to stay alive after being riddled with 28 bullet and shrapnel wounds, the sergeant, credited with saving the lives of eight comrades that day, was left for dead. A doctor was placing Benavidez in a body bag when the Green Beret spit in his face. This tough Texan was far from dead.
President Ronal Reagan belatedly awarded Benavidez the Medal of Honor in 1981. Barely two years after the president lauded him as a hero and draped the coveted medal around the Green Beret’s thick neck, Benavidez received word from the Social Security Administration that it was terminating his disability benefits. An agency review of its disability program had resulted in 350,000 people losing their benefits, and someone decided that this seventh-grade dropout was healthy enough to find employment.
Benavidez took his fight against the SSA public.
“It seems like they want to open up your wounds and pour a little salt in,” he said. “I don’t use my Medal of Honor for political purposes or for personal gain, but if they can do this to me, what will they do to all the others?”
He testified before the House Select Committee on Aging, saying, “The administration that put this medal around my neck is curtailing my benefits.”
Less than two weeks later, Margaret Heckler, then-Secretary of Health and Human Services, promised that the disability process would become more “humane and compassionate.” In July 1983, an administrative law judge ruled that Benavidez should continue receiving his disability benefits.
When not fighting against government bureaucracies, Benavidez traveled the country urging citizens to defend their country.
This Mexican-American war hero was obsessed with patriotism.
“Roy was the kind of guy who stands at attention when they play the national anthem on television,” said one friend. But while the Medal of Honor didn’t make Benavidez a patriot, it did give him a platform to talk about love of country.
The seventh-grade dropout stayed busy taking his patriotic message to community groups, military bases and schools around the country. Benavidez had little patience for those who refused to stand up and be counted during the stormy days of the Sixties. He would bristle-and the scars on his arms would whiten-when he recalled a speech he gave a men’s club in Houston.
The topic, of course, was patriotism. During his talk, he asked his listeners what had happened to “all those guys who burned the flag and took off to Canada”
Benavidez answered his own question.
“They’re back in America enjoying their freedom at the expense of my buddies’ lives,” he told them. “On Veteran’s Day, they have their barbecues and raise the flag-the same flag they once burned. Yet they say they’re proud Americans. What are they going to tell their children?”
The president of the organization was so moved, he approached Benavidez after the presentation with tears in his eyes and begged for forgiveness He told me he was one of those guys I was talking about and asked if I could forgive him,” Benavidez said. “I said, ‘Mister, we can forgive, but we’ll never forget.”
Benavidez would wax prolific on patriotism at the drop of an Army helmet, but he felt a special responsibility toward the people he called “the future leaders of our country.”
“I tell the kids that this great country of ours is free, but that freedom isn’t free,” he said. “I tell them to get behind the veterans, because if it weren’t for them they wouldn’t have their pizzas and hamburgers. I tell them to respect the flag-to stand up and be proud.
“I see young men and women so proud of their country they can’t wait to stand up and salute the flag. They know about the war because their parents served there, and their teachers were the ones who wrote us letters of support. They’re proud, and I think they’re beginning to understand what Vietnam was all about.
“I tell the kids to respect the flag-to stand up and be proud. I also talk about the importance of an education. And I talk respect for each other, regardless of the color of the skin.”
The spirit that Roy Benavidez took to his private war can best be understood by a reply he gave to a youngster after a speech at a high school. “When you were in all that pain after being wounded, did you ever think about giving up?” a girl asked.
“Give up?” he answered incredulously. “No, honey. An American never gives up!”
Roy Benavidez died at age 63 from complications of diabetes on November 29, 1998.