Hero Medic Recalls Days of Terror, Years of Anguish
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas, Sept. 15, 1998 Louis Richard Rocco hadn't thought much about danger and dying as he returned to Vietnam for a second tour in 1969. After all, he figured, except for the time a poisonous snake almost killed him, his 1965-66 tour had been uneventful.
The Hispanic American today calls that second visit his bad luck, good luck tour. The good luck is, by some miracle, he's alive, he said.
"I just had a guardian angel. I should have been killed, but I wasn't. It was just luck I wasn't hit," said Rocco, an Italian- Mexican-American born in 1938, in Albuquerque, N.M. It was on this second tour Rocco would earn the Medal of Honor for braving enemy fire to save four comrades.
The incident happened May 24, 1970, northeast of Katum, South Vietnam. Then a sergeant first class, Rocco was a medic and a member of Advisory Team 162, U.S. Military Assistance Command. He was asked to fly with a helicopter medevac crew to a besieged South Vietnamese army camp to help sort out and extract the wounded. Enemy fire around the camp and panic inside was making flights increasingly dangerous, he said.
Rocco said he climbed aboard and two days of hell on Earth started.
"We knew we were going into a hot landing zone, but we didn't know the extent of it," he said. "We started taking fire from all directions. The pilot was shot through the leg. The helicopter spun around and crashed in an open field, turned on its side and started burning. The co-pilot's arm was ripped off -- it was just hanging. The South Vietnamese wouldn't come out and get us because they were being cut down.
At the time, he said, he didn't realize he'd suffered back injuries and a broken hip and wrist in the crash. "I guess I was going on reflexes. The only thing I was thinking about was getting the people out. I jumped out and pulled the pilot out first. I looked for cover and saw a big tree lying on the ground. I dragged him to the tree, knowing that anytime I was going to get shot."
In a hail of enemy fire, Rocco rescued the pilot and co-pilot, helped remove the crew chief and went back a fourth time for the medic. Each trip meant crossing about 20 meters of open ground with an unconscious man. On his last trip, he suffered burns to his face, hands and neck.
Once he had the survivors behind cover, Rocco started giving them first aid. "I didn't feel anything, but then, all of a sudden, pain and everything hit me." He collapsed and lost consciousness.
Two days of fierce fighting, pandemonium and uncertainty about their survival followed, he said. Two helicopters were shot down on the second day while trying to save the stranded crew.
"They kept spraying the area with machine gun fire, and we kept calling in artillery and air strikes. In fact, at night, we were calling in strikes on our own position because the North Vietnamese were coming in at us," he recalled. Cobra helicopter gunships finally slammed the enemy positions with enough firepower to allow medical evacuation choppers to land.
"They didn't have time for litters or anything else," Rocco said. "They just threw us into the helicopter and took off." He said the 11th Armored Cavalry finally broke through and rescued about 60 survivors of two South Vietnamese companies.
The realization of what happened didn't hit him until he was in the hospital in Saigon. "When I thought about it, I started hyperventilating," Rocco said. "Just the scope of what took place hit me at one time and blew me away. I don't know how we were able to survive."
The commanding general of the 1st Cavalry Division visited Rocco in the hospital and told him he'd been recommended for the Medal of Honor. That was the only time he would hear of the award for more than five years. He said he was shocked when called one day to brigade headquarters at the 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Ky., and told he was to receive the Medal of Honor.
"I couldn't believe it!" Rocco exclaimed. Unknown to him at the time, the helicopter co-pilot he'd saved, then Army 1st Lt. Lee Caubarreaux, had been lobbying on his behalf.
"Before we left Vietnam, I told my commander Richard should get the Medal of Honor," Caubarreaux said in a telephone interview from his home in Marksville, La. Doctors saved Caubarreaux's arm. While getting ready to be medically retired in Texas in March 1971, he received a letter from a warrant officer in the 1st Cavalry Division awards and decorations office in Vietnam. The Medal of Honor recommendation for Rocco was enclosed-- it had ended up in a desk drawer and never left the headquarters.
Caubarreaux took matters into his own hands. "There's nothing I can say about Richard that can actually accommodate what he did -- he saved my life," he said. "I can't screw in a light bulb with my arm, but I can still hug my wife. There's no doubt: If he hadn't been there, we would have burned to death in the helicopter."
After more than three years of appealing to the Army, he told Rocco's story to U.S. Sen. Russell Long of Louisiana. He said Long apparently pushed the right buttons because Rocco got the Medal of Honor soon after.
Rocco retired in 1978 after 18 years as an enlisted man and four as a warrant officer physician's assistant. He took an emergency room job at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Albuquerque. Working there, he said, proved to be a mentally punishing, everyday reminder of Vietnam veterans' anguish.
Vietnam veterans came in or were brought in suffering from drug overdoses, alcohol abuse and other self-destructive behavior, he said. What's known as post-traumatic stress disorder today was still called "shell-shock" then, Rocco noted. As he tried to help other veterans, his own demons went out of control. He began having flashbacks, nightmares, cold sweats.
With his third wife, Maria, beside him, Rocco said his war experiences destroyed two marriages. "When you've got rage inside you, it's very hard to control that emotion. It spills off onto your family," said the father of two sons and a daughter, Teresa, an Army Desert Storm veteran.
His problems and those of his younger brother Clyde, also a Vietnam combat veteran, kindled his compassion for other veterans. Rocco subsequently used his VA hospital job to kick- start programs to help them.
"Back then, we couldn't get the help we needed," he said. "Society wanted to bury the issue. These guys were hurting. Many of them couldn't express their grief, their anger, their rage. Many of them became antisocial. Some went into communes away from society. Some just became self-destructive."
Rocco took a break after about three years, but returned in 1980 as the appointed director of the New Mexico Veterans Services Commission. "I did my best to help as many veterans as I could," he said. "Slowly veterans' organizations started helping. Many more veterans got help, but a lot still fell through the cracks."
As Desert Shield heated up in 1990, Rocco, at age 52, volunteered and went on active duty at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. "My job was calling physicians assistants back to active duty," he said of his six-month tour. "I came in to work one day and they told me the war was over and to pack my stuff and go home," he said with a laugh. He went back to helping veterans.
"I was working 14-, 15-hour days between my regular job and doing fund-raisers to keep the veterans program going. Maria was doing the same thing with the AIDS program she was running. It totally exhausted us. We had to take a break -- get away," Rocco said. "I'd always wanted to visit Mexico. We've been there for five years, but I'm ready to come back now and start over again.
"I feel I don't really deserve the Medal of Honor, but since I have it, I'd like to be in a position to use it to help veterans," he said. "I haven't done everything I should do."