LAUREL, Md. – Alfred Rascon describes a chance meeting with North Vietnamese snipers north of the Mekong Delta nearly 30 years ago as “10 minutes of pure hell.”
Now, looking back on that enemy attack in South Vietnam, Rascon said he believes the nearly mortal wounds he sustained were not life-changing.
But several men who credit him with saving their lives have something very different to say. They are telling the U.S. government to give Rascon, 50, the recognition they say he deserves. Nearly 50 members of Congress are listening.
Rep. Lane Evans, D-Ill., a member of the House National Security Committee, has sponsored legislation that would belatedly recognize the Howard County resident with the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award.
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, who represents Rascon in Congress, said he supports the bill, which also is backed by 15 members of the House Hispanic Caucus and 30 other House members.
“I’m not a hero,” said Rascon, who nonetheless said he would be honored to receive the award.
Rascon, who is Mexican-born, was raised in Oxnard, Calif., and enlisted in the Army just out of high school. He had hoped to be a paratrooper, but was instead assigned to a basic medical corpsman course following basic training.
On March 16, 1966, Rascon, a medic, and his unit were ambushed by North Vietnamese gunners while on reconnaissance. According to Rascon and others who were with him, he used his body to shield a machine gunner from enemy fire as he administered first aid.
Rascon recalls looking at the scene almost as a bowling alley. “One person was lying in the alley. Toward the bowling pins, people were shooting 25 yards away,” he said.
Rascon was shot in the hip, but the gunner received mortal wounds to the chest and throat.
Under open fire, Rascon retrieved the dead gunner’s M-60 rifle and its ammunition to keep it from falling into enemy hands.
Larry M. Gibson, of Tacoma, Wash., a machine gunner in the unit, said Rascon also was instrumental in getting his gun back into action. In addition, “he just continued to treat the wounded and pull men from the line of fire,” Gibson said.
Before the firefight was over, Rascon would cover two soldiers with his body to protect them from incoming grenades. Rascon said shrapnel tore through a part of his face, though it sustained no permanent visible damage.
“I was the one he jumped on,” said Neil Haffey, recounting in a telephone interview his experience as one of the two men Rascon is credited with saving.
Rascon received a medical discharge from the Army later that year.
Haffey, now a firefighter in East Orange, N.J., said he was not in touch with Rascon until about two years ago, when efforts were started to honor him.
Immediately after the incident, inaccurate information circulated among members of the unit, Haffey said. “Everybody thought he received it,” he said of the Medal of Honor.
Gibson, 48, said he cannot explain why Rascon was not recognized with the high honor. “It fell through the cracks,” he said. “We just want to correct it.”
Rascon, now inspector general for the Selective Service System, received a Silver Star several months after the battle. The star is the fourth highest of five military awards.
The citation was “very short and brief,” Rascon said. “It didn’t say what I thought should be said.”
At a reunion of the 173rd Airborne Division in 1990, Rascon said he and a retired Army lieutenant colonel got reacquainted, and, swapping war stories, talked of the incident.
Locating former members of the unit, the two “finally tracked me down,” Gibson said. “That’s how it got rolling.”
Federal law bars awarding the Medal of Honor more than two years after an incident for which the award recognizes valor, which is why Evans’ bill is necessary.
The bill would lift the two-year restriction for Rascon. The congressman said he hopes the bill will recognize Rascon’s contributions and “open doors to other Vietnam veterans.”
A spokeswoman for the House National Security Committee said the bill has not yet been assigned to a subcommittee for hearings.
The Senate Armed Services Committee has approved broader language. Its provision would authorize the secretary of Defense or secretaries of military departments to award a decoration for service during the Vietnam era.
The committee provision would establish a one-year period in which award recommendations from the military could be submitted. The recommendation, part of a Defense Department funding bill, is awaiting House and Senate votes, said committee spokeswoman Chris Cimko.
Final action on the House measure is not likely until 1996, said Tom O’Donnell, Evans’ legislative director.
Rascon awaits word. “It’s important in my life,” he said of the medal. “It ends up the highest medal for valor anyone can get.” -30-