Benavidez becomes an MI hero
2 May 1968
When President Ronald Reagan hung the Medal of Honor around Master Sgt. Roy P. Benavidez’ neck on Feb. 4, 1981, he said to the gathered press, “If the story of his heroism were a movie script, you would not believe it.” He was not exaggerating. On May 2, 1968, behind enemy lines in Cambodia, Roy Benavidez became a legend.
“Roy” Benavidez was born as Raul in 1935 to a Yaqui Indian mother and Mexican-American father. His young life was marked by poverty, sadness and hard work. His father’s family were sharecroppers and vaqueros (cowboys) who were devastated by their son’s decision to marry a Yaqui woman. Raul’s father died when he was two and his mother died when he turned seven – both from tuberculosis. His uncle, who raised him after he was orphaned, was a migrant farm worker, and all nine children worked in the sugar beet and cotton fields alongside him.
In Roy’s words, “I felt terribly alone. I was a seven-year-old half breed orphan.”
Raul learned to cope by being tough. By the time he was ten he fought anyone who crossed him, from kids to grown men. It would be many years before he would break this habit, but later on in the Army, he would earn the nickname Tango/Mike/Mike, an acronym from the military phonetic alphabet meaning, “That Mean Mexican.” It became a source of pride for him, as he attributed his meanness to the toughness of his childhood and his mother’s Yaqui heritage.
Raul enlisted in the Army in 1954, changed his name to Roy, and served back-to-back assignments in Korea and Berlin while dreaming of going to Airborne School. He made it, after four years and a reenlistment. Having earned his wings, he served in the 82nd Airborne, but set new sights on a Special Forces green beret. Before that could happen, he was sent in 1965 to Vietnam as an advisor.
In 1966 Roy stepped on a landmine that didn’t explode, but it twisted his spine like a corkscrew, shattering bone and cartilage. Some called him lucky. The doctors said he’d never walk again. Roy’s faith and his stubbornness would prove them wrong. He knew he’d survived for a reason. His fighting spirit kicked in again, and every time he fell he would get up again and again and again. His enemies were pain, self pity, failure, the dreaded wheelchair and the system that would have discharged him. His battle buddies were God and his wife, Lala.
Not only did he walk again, he stayed in the Army, regained his Airborne status, and was accepted to Special Forces training just months after he walked out of the hospital. Roy was 30 years old when he started training: running 5 miles a day carrying 75-pound backpacks, doing calisthenics, obstacle courses, parachute jumps and survival training. He opted to specialize in operations/intelligence – a tough challenge for a guy who never advanced beyond the seventh grade.
As the ranking NCO, he was made the supervisor of the other men in his class. His training sent him on missions to Panama, Honduras and Ecuador. He hoped to use his training and bilingual skills on an assignment to Venezuela. Instead, he was headed back to Vietnam as a member of the (formerly) classified Studies and Observations Group.
On the day that changed his life, May 2, 1968, Roy was off duty and attending a church service in Loc Ninh. His buddies were on a special reconnaissance mission, joining two Vietnamese Special Forces Warrant Officers and seven South Vietnamese volunteers inside Cambodia to collect intelligence on enemy activity. The mission was ambushed, the team surrounded and overrun by over 350 North Vietnamese with 30 machine guns. Three helicopters tried, and failed to get them out. That’s when Roy overheard the radio call begging for help.
Tango/Mike/Mike knew he had to go. He couldn’t just listen to them on the radio while they died. He jumped on a departing helicopter and rolled out of it into the middle of the firefight with a medical bag and a rifle. Seconds after hitting the ground he was hit by the first bullet in the leg. Roy was in the fight of his life for his buddies’ lives. He fought on autopilot for six hours, shooting at the enemy, administering first aid, setting up defensive fire and calling in air strikes, all while loading the dead and wounded on first one, then another chopper. Before he left the ground, he had been shot five times, had over 37 puncture wounds, was blinded with blood and had a broken jaw. They were putting him in a body bag before they realized he wasn’t dead.
Roy’s specialized Special Forces training had taught him the importance and sensitive nature of the intelligence mission. Not wanting the classified material to fall into enemy hands, he had the presence of mind to either destroy or carry out virtually all of the team’s classified material and equipment. He knew that if this material ended up in the Viet Cong’s hands, severe loss of life to his brother Soldiers could occur.
Roy Benavidez’ warrior ethos saved many lives on the rescue mission that day, but he also protected the lives of countless others by ensuring the continued security of the U.S. mission and communications in the area. Not only did Benavidez survive his wounds, he continued to serve on Active Duty until 1976. Later, he co-authored a book about his life called Medal of Honor – A Vietnam Warrior’s Story – the source of this article. It is available in the MI Library. Master Sergeant Roy Benavidez, a Mexican/Indian/American hero, truly embodies his favorite slogan, ‘Duty, Honor, Country.’