The year was 1968. It was a year of war, of protests, of death.
It was the year Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were both assassinated. It was also the year the Vietnam War exploded into new levels of violence. And as troops poured into ‘Nam and more and more young men died – 1968 was the deadliest year of the Vietnam War – Americans watched it all from their living rooms with anger and disgust. The protest movement gained traction. Protesters spit on returning Soldiers, called them rapists and baby killers. In fact, the U.S. agreed to begin peace talks in Paris that year, due in part to the dwindling support at home.
It was also the year Santiago Erevia became a soldier. He had been scraping by, working in restaurants in San Antonio. The future stretched before him, an endless sea of dead-end job after dead-end job. So he volunteered. If you volunteered versus being drafted, it meant fewer years of service, he explained. He knew he would end up in Vietnam, but he figured the Army would give him a lot of opportunities he wouldn’t have if he stayed in Texas. Erevia knew what he was risking — a friend had just come home horribly wounded and disfigured after only a month in combat and many more months in the hospital.
“People take their chances,” Erevia said. It didn’t mean anything would happen to him.
And it didn’t. He arrived in country in November 1968, and although he was assigned to the infantry – he joked that he was too dumb for anything else – and came through Vietnam as a hero who will receive the Medal of Honor during a March 18 White House ceremony, then-Spec. 4 Erevia also went home almost unscathed. A grenade did send some shrapnel into his back, earning him a Purple Heart, but the wound was so insignificant that he was back on patrol the next day. Indeed, Erevia narrowly escaped death or maiming time and again, even after a daring mission to capture and ultimately kill North Vietnamese Army, known as the NVA, soldiers, for which he received a Bronze Star. The other Soldiers in his unit, Company C, 1st Battalion (Airmobile), 501st Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile), even started to joke about the radio-telephone operator’s luck.
“I was very fortunate, very, very fortunate,” Erevia admitted. “I think I stepped on quite a few mines.” One close call involved a Claymore mine that had actually been stolen from Co. C: “We came up to a culvert, about six or seven feet deep,” he said. “I had to climb down and get up again. That was my savior. I helped everybody get up. There were three or four guys who went up ahead of me. They hit the Claymore mine. The front guy lost his leg. One guy had pellets all the way up his front. The third man had his hand broken. I was the fourth man. Nothing touched me. I was like a miracle baby.”
His luck held on in May 1969. Overall, that May was a particularly intense month in Vietnam. Near the Laotian border, for example, three battalions from the 101st Inf. Div., including the 501st’s 2nd Battalion, waged a bloody 10-day campaign to seize a mountain that troops and reporters nicknamed Hamburger Hill thanks to the horrific injuries many Soldiers sustained. Meanwhile, across the country on the central coast of the Republic of Vietnam, near the city of Tam Ky in Quang Tin Province, Soldiers from the 21st Infantry Regiment fought a lesser-known battle to clear the Viet Cong, known as the VC, from Nui Yon Hill.
Then, Erevia’s battalion air assaulted onto another hill near Tam Ky, May 21, after a day of light skirmishing between his company and the enemy across a rice field. When they finally arrived at the hill, the operation began like any other search-and-clear mission, he remembered. But the NVA and the Viet Cong were dug in, and things went downhill quickly. As the unit prepared to cross a football field-sized clearing about 100 yards from the hill, they started taking fire.
“We had wounded guys,” Erevia remembered. His M16 started to malfunction, so his company commander ordered him to stay behind and care for the wounded while the rest of the men pushed up the hill from the north at about 4 p.m. Erevia’s position soon came under attack with intense automatic and small arms fire from four underground enemy bunkers, however. Crawling through the hail of bullets, he collected a second M16 and several hand grenades from the wounded Soldiers and crept forward with his friend Spc. Patrick Diehl. The two men then took cover behind a tree while they tried to locate the first enemy position.
“We were back to back and Diehl was to the left, I was to the right,” Erevia remembered, tears coursing down his face. “I said, ‘Diehl, do you see anything to your side?’ He never answered. And I said, ‘Diehl!’ I turned around and he was laying on the ground with a bullet hole square on his forehead.” Another soldier lay about 10 feet away with a bullet wound to his back. Erevia thought he was dead (he wasn’t), and “while he was lying on the ground, I said, ‘Well, I have no choice. They can die. So can I.
“I knew that the guy who killed Diehl … was like to the far left, but we had fire coming in from three sides. The Army trains you to fight. In that situation, if somebody’s laying in a hole or down an embankment, and if you’re running toward where they’re at, you’re supposed to lay down suppressive fire, try to keep your head down, which I did. I ran and took my two M16s. I was able to throw within maybe five feet from the foxhole (the enemy) was hiding in. I had a grenade, threw it at him and that was it.”
Under intense fire from three other bunkers, Erevia continued moving forward to the two closest locations until he was close enough to destroy them with his remaining grenades. Then, running and firing both M16s simultaneously, he fought his way to the last bunker, to the soldier who had killed his friend.
“I started kind of walking toward him. The guy from that foxhole rose up,” Erevia said. “Unfortunately, he penetrated my – we had those jungle shirts that we wore – one bullet went through the jacket … but I was able to fire point blank at his face and did him in.”
By this time, other soldiers were coming back from the hill to help, but Erevia had single-handedly taken out four infamous VC bunkers. A bullet had passed through his jungle shirt and flak jacket, but he was fine. He went back to caring for the wounded until helicopters arrived to medevac them to safety. “I loaded up a whole bunch of my friends into those helicopters,” he recalled, explaining that as an RTO, he often had to direct the helicopters’ landings as well.
The surrounding area was still full of NVA and VC – even heavy fire from the air didn’t root them out – so Erevia’s instructions to the pilots were critical to ensuring a safe landing and subsequent takeoff. “There was a helicopter coming in,” Erevia explained, “and there was only one way he could come in. That was directly in front of us. I said, ‘Come in straight. Do not go to the right. Do not go to the left. We’re surrounded. If you go to the left, you’re going to get shot.'” The pilot didn’t listen, and after its rotor was shot off, the helicopter crashed and exploded as the men of Company C watched in horror.
“We were delegated to go get the bodies from the helicopter,” Erevia continued. “I can remember one that they took out. He had no legs, just the upper body. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a body or like when you’re barbequing hamburgers or chicken and all that blood is coming out? That made me the sickest man in the world.”
It seemed as though he couldn’t escape the violence. In fact, the events of that day were so traumatic and disturbing that Erevia’s commander sent him on a weeklong rest-and-relaxation trip to Da Nang, not only as a small reward for his bravery, but to help him recover. Like many troops in Vietnam, Erevia then spent the remainder of his yearlong deployment performing administrative tasks in the rear at Landing Zone Sally, delivering meals or replacing Soldiers’ used uniforms with clean ones.
After Vietnam, Erevia finished his tour at Fort Riley, Kan., and went back to San Antonio, where he joined the Texas National Guard and served for another 17 years. He received the nation’s second highest award for valor, the Distinguished Service Cross, in 1970, and he thought that was the end of it. It was an honor, one that he was proud of, one that helped him get a good job as a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service (a job he held for the next 32 years), but he was never one to brag about his accomplishments. He didn’t want to talk about Vietnam. He just wanted to move past what had happened: “I didn’t give it too much thought. You know, you go from day-to-day, do what you’re told.”
That resolve didn’t stop the nightmares though. For the next three or four years, every night when Erevia closed his eyes, he would dream about that day in Vietnam, tortured by images of his lost buddies, of Diehl and the other men who had died. The nightmares have faded now, but the memories are still painful. When he does talk about the events of May 21, 1969, it’s slowly, with long pauses and more than a few tears.
So when he got a phone call from the White House a few months ago, Erevia couldn’t quite believe it. “They called me and the one lady said, ‘I’m with President Obama. He wishes to talk to you.’ He said that upon reviewing the documents that he thought that I deserved the Medal of Honor. I went numb. I couldn’t talk. He finally said, ‘Are you there?’ I said, ‘Sir, let me recoup my emotions. I’m talking to the president! It’s not every day that I do that.'”
There are no words that can describe how he’s feeling, Erevia continued, adding “I’m only thankful I’m getting it while I’m alive.” Those are sentiments echoed by his son Roland, who is himself a specialist in the Texas National Guard and a three-time veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. As a soldier, he knows just how rare and precious the Medal of Honor is, and he couldn’t be prouder of his father.
“To me, it’s outstanding how much courage he had and passion he had for saving people,” Roland said. “I don’t talk about it with him, but I think about it every day, actually, because I know what he went through. … I felt like it was me getting an award.”
Although the elder Erevia never told Roland many details about Vietnam, and Roland didn’t ask because he saw how it upset his father, Erevia’s service, his sacrifices, resonated deeply with his son. While Roland confessed that “I feel like I’m not good enough to stand in his squad,” he also credited Erevia with inspiring his decision to join the Army, especially with the sense of honor and duty his father instilled in him.
In addition, Erevia gave Roland one very important piece of advice: “Don’t be a hero. … Just duck and hit the ground and raise your rifle and shoot toward the enemy. Don’t try to be a hero. I was put into the situation that I could not get out. I had no recourse other than I was able to fight or I was going to die. But really, if you don’t have to put your life in the hands of God, (don’t).”