fbpx

Medal of Honor Monday: Army Sgt. Gary Beikirch

Army Sgt. Gary Burnell Beikirch made a post-military career out of helping veterans and children — a passion he discovered while healing from wounds he suffered in Vietnam that left him temporarily paralyzed.

During the battle where he earned those scars, Beikirch saved several wounded men. For that, he earned the Medal of Honor.

Beikirch was born Aug. 29, 1947, in Rochester, N.Y.. His parents, George and Norma, divorced when he was 4 or 5. Beikirch said that was the last time he and his younger brother, Larry, saw their dad.

Army photograph Army Sgt. Gary B. Beikirch, Medal of Honor recipient.

Beikirch said he, his brother and his mother lived with various aunts and uncles over the next several years, moving so often that he’d attended 11 schools before he reached ninth grade. By that age, he was tired of the constant shuffle, so he moved in permanently with a close aunt and uncle in Greece, N.Y. He stayed there until he graduated high school.

Beikirch went to college in 1965 but dropped out after about two years. He decided he wanted to become a Green Beret, so he joined the Army in 1967, shortly before his 20th birthday. The young soldier was initially placed in an airborne infantry unit before going to Special Forces school. He eventually earned his Green Beret as a medic, a specialty he chose because he “wanted to help people more than anything else,” he said in a Library of Congress Veterans History Project interview.

By July 1969, Beikirch was assigned to the 5th Special Forces Group and was sent to Vietnam. He became the chief medical officer of Detachment B-24, Company B, based at Special Forces Camp Dak Seang near the border of Laos in central South Vietnam. At the base, there were about 2,000 villagers who lived nearby and worked closely with the Army. They were trained by Special Forces teams to protect their villages, according to the National Medal of Honor Museum, and they became close allies of the American troops.

By April 1, 1970, Beikirch had been in Vietnam for nearly a year and was about to take deployment leave when Dak Seang was attacked. Around 3 a.m., a well-concealed North Vietnamese force surrounded the camp, launching heavy fire on the Americans and the villagers.

Beikirch immediately jumped into action, running through the fire to help wounded comrades and get them back to a medical aid bunker. He was hit with shrapnel during this time but refused to get help for himself.

Throughout the attack, a Vietnamese teen named Deo followed Beikirch’s every move. Deo was assigned to be the 22-year-old Beikirch’s bodyguard, and in the months they’d worked together, they’d become close friends, Beikirch said.

As Beikirch was carrying a wounded soldier to the aid station, he heard an incoming rocket and threw himself on top of the injured man. The rocket exploded about 20 feet from the pair. It sent shrapnel throughout Beikirch’s body and into his spine.

A U.S. soldier runs quickly through Dak Seang as the Special Forces camp was attacked in April 1970 by North Vietnamese troops. (Army photograph)

“I remember feeling like I got kicked by a horse,” Beikirch said. “I actually remember seeing myself flying head over heels and getting slammed into sandbags, and then just falling onto the ground and collapsing.” He said his injuries were later described to him as “like a concussion to the spinal cord.”

Beikirch’s lower body was paralyzed, so Deo — who was also injured — carried him to the aid station. Despite their injuries, the pair continued to hand out medical supplies before going out once again to try to rescue more injured men.

Deo physically carried Beikirch around to do so until another rocket hit nearby. This time, Deo jumped on top of Beikirch’s body. The move saved the Green Beret, but Deo didn’t survive.

Beikirch said other villagers picked him up and took him back to the aid station. When Beikirch again refused to stay there, they carried him around to try to rescue more people. Beikirch was shot again and eventually collapsed, finally giving in to treatment. Two soldiers managed to get him to an evacuation helicopter, which flew him out of the besieged camp.

Beikirch said he was close to death in the first week after the attack. He was transferred to a hospital in Japan and eventually flown back to the U.S. He spent about seven months in a Pennsylvania veterans’ hospital, where he had to relearn how to walk.

After an extensive rehabilitation, Beikirch said he wanted to return to overseas duty; however, his orders kept him stateside, and he had a tough time adjusting. He decided to leave the Army. After getting special permission to do so, he detached from the service in August 1971.

Beikirch went back to college as a pre-med student, but because his fellow students knew he was a veteran, they treated him poorly due to the war’s unpopularity and misconceptions about soldiers at the time. So, he dropped out again.

Around the same time, Beikirch was introduced to Christianity. He decided he wanted to serve in that capacity instead, so in 1973, he joined White Mountain Seminary in Lancaster, N.H.

That fall, Beikirch learned he had earned the Medal of Honor. On Oct. 15, 1973, he received the nation’s highest award for valor from President Richard M. Nixon during a White House ceremony. However, Beikirch said he didn’t want to celebrate it at the time because it brought back bad memories. He said he put the medal in a duffle bag and didn’t take it out again for a long time.

A U.S. soldier stands out in the open in Dak Seang, a Special Forces camp in South Vietnam that was attacked on April 1, 1970, by North Vietnamese soldiers. (Army photograph)

Beikirch returned to New Hampshire to continue his studies. Aside from the seminary, he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology-psychology from the University of New Hampshire. In January 1975, he met Loreen Wheeler, who he married three months later. They had three children.

Beikirch, who was considered quiet and modest, didn’t really talk about what happened to him in Vietnam. He was ordained a pastor in 1975 and moved to northern Maine to lead services at a small church. In 1979, he moved his family back to the Rochester area when his mother had a stroke. He returned to school, too, getting a degree in education counseling from the State University of New York, Brockport.

That’s when he said he finally began to cope with what he’d been through during the war and what the Medal of Honor truly meant.

“What this medal represents — it’s not about me and it’s not about anything that I’ve done. It’s about men and women who value something so strongly that they’re willing to die for it,” Beikirch said. “It’s a symbol of valuing something greater than self.”

President Richard M. Nixon puts the Medal of Honor around the neck of Army Sgt. Gary B. Beikirch, Oct. 15, 1973. Beikirch, a Green Beret, earned the medal for actions he took to save his comrades during battle in Vietnam. (Photograph courtesy of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library)

Beikirch also highlighted the massive impact his fallen Vietnamese friend, Deo, had on his life. He repeatedly said how none of the actions he took to earn the Medal of Honor were possible without the teenager.

Beikirch said those revelations helped him realized how much he enjoyed working with children and veterans, so he became a guidance counselor and worked for about 30 years at Greece Arcadia Middle School. His work with veterans continued, too; he was the executive director and a founder of the Veterans Outreach Center in Rochester, and at some point, he was the chaplain of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

Beikirch died of cancer on Dec. 26, 2021, at the age of 74. He was buried in White Haven Memorial Park in Pittsford, N.Y.

Beikirch’s legacy has carried on across his home state and in the Army. In 2012, the 2nd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group named its new battalion operations complex Beikirch Hall. Shortly before his death, part of a park in his native Monroe County was renamed for him. A road near the school at which he worked was also renamed Gary Beikirch Way.

Editor’s note: Medal of Honor Monday highlights Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.

Medal of Honor recipients, from the left, Gary Beikirch, Hershel Williams, James Taylor and Clinton Romesha lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery March 25, 2014. The wreath laying was part of a larger Medal of Honor Day recognition held at the cemetery.
First Sergeants from Tripler Army Medical Center’s Troop Battalion meet Medal of Honor Recipient Gary B. Beikirch during a leader professional development event, at the TAMC Kyser Auditorium, Honolulu, Hawaii, May 17. Beikirch is a former U.S. Army Soldier, and Special Forces medical non-commissioned officer, who received the highest military decoration for his actions in the Vietnam War.

More Stories

On This Date
By Aerotech News & Review
Contracts Briefs
By Aerotech News & Review
Headlines — May 20
By Aerotech News & Review