' What We Were Fighting for Was Each Other'
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 5, 2001 Sammy L. Davis and Al Rascon say they're nothing special -- just two regular guys who went to war and did what they had to do.
Medal of Honor recipients Sammy L. Davis (left,) and Al Rascon (center,) listen to Defense Secretary William S. Cohen aboard an Air Force C-17 in December. The two Vietnam veterans accompanied Cohen during the secretary's holiday tour to troop bases in Germany, Bosnia and Kosovo. Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The blue-ribboned Medals of Honor that adorn their chests, however, belie their humble claims. Since its creation during the Civil War, 3,434 people have received the nation's highest award for valor.
Davis, an Army artilleryman born in Mooresville, Ind., and Rascon, a former Army medic born in Chihuahua, Mexico, risked their lives in Vietnam to save others. Even though they shy away from the term, both are American heroes. Although severely wounded, they fought valiantly, used their bodies to shield fellow soldiers and refused medical attention until their buddies were safe.
Today, as members of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, the two Vietnam veterans share their wartime experiences with people around the country. They address students of all ages as well as military groups and private organizations.
In mid-December, Davis and Rascon traveled with Defense Secretary William S. Cohen to military bases in Germany and the Balkans. At each stop, the veterans told the troops they wear the Medal of Honor on behalf of all who have fought the nation's wars. They also paid tribute to the military men and women now serving around the world. "I'm not a hero," Davis said during an interview with American Forces Press Service. "I know in my heart, you see, that I'm not any more brave than you are. I am maybe a little more determined, but I'm not any more brave. I'm 54 years old and I'm still scared of the dark. That's not a hero."
Most Medal of Honor recipients feel they're no different than the other men and women who serve, Davis said. "Because of circumstance, determination and help from the Man above, we were able to accomplish some feats that some people may call heroic," he explained.
No one knows how he or she will react when they go to war, Davis said. "When you go into combat, I think you have in your heart's eye the picture of the flag and everything that it stands for," he noted, "but when it comes down to the actual fighting, what you're fighting for is each other."
Davis recalled a rainy night when his outfit was sent to reinforce another unit being overrun by the enemy.
"We were all really frightened, but we weren't talking about it," he said. "Then, someone said, 'Damn, I hope I don't run. I hope I can do my job.' And another man said, 'I hope I'm not so frightened that I just freeze.' Then all of us said, 'Yeah, man. Me too.'
"We discovered that what we were most frightened of was being frightened," Davis said. "None of us wanted to die, but we would have rather lost our lives doing what was right than living knowing we didn't do our job. We were willing to do our job for our buddies "
No matter how bleak the situation, Davis pointed out, camaraderie and down home humor could often brighten the troops' outlook.
"I remember one night we were getting mortared and we were almost out of ammunition," he recalled. "All of us were seriously getting scared because it was a real bad situation. Then Delbert W. Cole, a Spec 4 from Beaumont, Texas, shouted at the top of his lungs, 'If they don't quit this shit, I'm gonna call my Congressman.'"
Cole's cheeky comment heartened the men in spite of the danger, Davis said. "When Del did that, we all just thought, "Yeah, life is good."
For a long time afterward, Davis said he tried to forget Vietnam, but nightmares disturbed his sleep. Then a World War II veteran taught him that remembering was far easier than trying to forget.
Davis said he attended a World War II memorial ceremony along with John W. Finn, the oldest living Medal of Honor recipient. Finn was a lieutenant at Naval Air Station, Kaneohe Bay, in Hawaii, when the Japanese attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. At the ceremony, Finn was supposed to lay a wreath of roses on the water over the sunken battleship, the USS Arizona. Instead, Davis said, Finn, took one rose at a time and spoke by name of the men who were there that fatal day.
"He'd say a name and he'd tell us if the man was married, what his wife's name was, if he had children, what his children's names were," Davis said. "Then he'd lay the rose on the water."
Even after 40 years, Finn still remembered all the details, Davis said.
"Right then I realized I wasn't going to forget about Vietnam -- so let's remember it," Davis said. "Instead of trying to keep it back in the dark, let's bring it out in the light. It's been much more healthy to be able to talk about it, cry about it and just deal with it."
Medically retired, Davis now spends as much time as his health allows talking to people all over the country. Speaking to young or old, military or civilian, his message is always the same.
"I try to encourage them to stand up for what they believe to be right," he said. "The best way you can serve your nation is to firmly stand for what you believe is correct in your heart."
Many young people today know little about the military, Davis noted. "Their parents were not in the military. Maybe grandpa was, but he's been gone for so long so they dont have a real concept of what the military is about."
When young people ask why he went to Vietnam, Davis explains that he volunteered right after high school.
"I felt it was my duty to help a people be free," he said. "My daddy had gone to World War II to help freedom. My older brother went to Germany during the Berlin Crisis to help people be free. My other brother was in Korea. Vietnam came along and it was my turn to go help freedom."
Davis said he and the other Medal of Honor recipients aim to help young people believe in themselves and in their country. The response has been overwhelming, he noted. Even though the group does not advertise, word of mouth has led to countless speaking engagements.
"We started off thinking if we did a school a month we'd be lucky. Now, if we had three times the number of Medal of Honor recipients we still couldn't fulfill the obligations we have."
Rascon, known to his platoon mates as "Doc," is one of the latest to join the society's ranks. The former Army medic received the Medal of Honor in February 2000 for his heroic actions in Vietnam in 1966.
At the time, he received a Silver Star, but the request for his Medal of Honor had gotten lost in red tape. Platoon members persisted in tracing the request until, 34 years later, President Clinton presented the medal Feb. 8, 2000, at the White House.
"This award is not really mine; it's for those who were with me that day," the soft-spoken Rascon told Clinton. "I did it because I had to do it and that's all there is to it. I don't consider myself a hero -- anybody in combat would do the same thing for their buddies and friends."
Receiving the medal changed Rascon's life, he told American Forces Press Service. "You're living one day as a regular U.S. citizen," he said. "The next day you're a Medal of Honor recipient.
"I was a 19-year-old kid in Vietnam. I was just doing my job. Now people expect me to be a poet laureate, magna cum laude, all things to all people. But in reality, I'm just a human being with faults like everybody else.
"The Medal of Honor that I carry is not for myself," he stressed. "I bear the Medal of Honor for everybody who has been in combat and those who end up putting their lives in jeopardy every day being fighting men and women."
Rascon, who retired Jan. 3, from his job as the Selective Service System's inspector general, said he's gotten countless phone calls and mountains of mail since receiving the medal. "I even ended up getting mail addressed to the 'Medal of Honor Guy' and the post office knew where to send it," he said.
Even though he always looked at Medal of Honor recipients with awe, Rascon confessed he's dumbfounded that troops now look at him the same way. "It's not me, it's the medal," he said. "It draws them like a magnet.
"I was at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, two months ago, and there was a young sergeant in a wheel chair who'd been involved in a serious accident. He had I-don't-know-how- many stitches around his head. He saw me in the hallway and immediately came up to me and wanted to shake my hand. I'm almost in tears trying to talk to him, and he's just awed by the fact that I'm there."
Others at the base were more hesitant to approach the Vietnam vet. "Some people are afraid to talk to you because they think you're somebody special, but you're not," he said. "I went up to a group of combat medics and said 'I was a grunt medic just like you.'"
During his time in Vietnam, Rascon said caring for his friends was foremost on his mind and he knew they would care for him.
"War is organized chaos," Rascon remarked. "You end up hearing people crying for their mothers when they're dying. You end up with people bleeding to death. You end up hearing gun shots. You smell the smell of the cordite from the weapons going off. It's just organized Hell."
For the most part, he continued, people do what needs to be done. Thousands of people probably deserve Medals of Honor who never received them, he said, because no one witnessed their valorous and courageous acts.
"During the time I was in Vietnam, 1965 to 1966, I took care of people who were critically injured. I took care of people who died in my arms. Time and again, I saw people risk their lives trying to help somebody like they were supposed to. They didn't give it a second thought."
Rascon still hears from some of his platoon mates. He recently received a Christmas card that said, "I have a family, my health, my military career -- all thanks to you."
Other platoon members still express thanks to the medic who tended their wounds in the heat of battle.
"I'm humbled and embarrassed by it," Rascon said. "I was just doing my job. I know that somebody would have done the same thing for me."
For more information on Davis and Rascon go to the U.S. Army Center of Military History Medal of Honor web site www.army.mil/cmh-pg/mohviet.htm. For information on the Congressional Medal of Honor Society go to www.cmohs.com/medal.htm.