TAMPA — The 22-year-old Tampa kid, a radioman in Charlie Company, wasn't thinking about medals or heroics. He crawled in the muck of a rice paddy in Vietnam with a radio on his back that felt like a big bulls-eye.
It seemed as if the entire Viet Cong army was out to kill him.
Three companies of the Army's 9th Infantry Division had just walked into an ambush on the afternoon of June 19, 1967, in the Mekong Delta. Hundreds of enemy guns opened up. The radio operator tried to crawl to the only cover he could see — the earthen wall of a dike no more than a foot high.
Somewhere behind him in a village the Americans had just cleared, a sniper's aim settled on the radioman's back. A trigger was pulled.
The draftee would never reach the dike.
This was the beginning of an intense three-day battle. About 300 Americans entered that rice paddy. Of those, 47 would die. For a while, it was uncertain if Robert French, the Tampa radioman, would be among them.
He can't recall if he felt the bullet tear into his lower back. He had known radiomen were tempting targets for the enemy. A dead radio operator could leave an American outfit in disarray, unable to call in help.
French, alive but drifting in and out of consciousness, was evacuated on a chopper whose rotor was shot out as it lifted from the delta. The bird hit the deck with a jolt. French felt his body roll out the gunner's door out into the rice paddy again.
Someone pulled him to safety.
• • •
The days that followed were a confused jumble of memories. French woke up in a hospital, still in Vietnam, momentarily unsure how he got there.
Competing emotions tore at him. He was happy to be out of the fight. But it was tough to be away from his buddies.
Back in Tampa, his wife, Kaye, seven months pregnant, didn't know a thing about his ordeal except for the occasional shiver of foreboding that often tormented the families of soldiers in peril.
She tried to shut it off from her mind like a window closed against the cold.
In Vietnam, French's lieutenant put in the paperwork for a commendation. Five men were supposed to be decorated.
The paperwork seemingly vanished. French never got his Bronze Star for meritorious service. He didn't even know he had been nominated for one.
It took a few months to recover. The bullet had hit French's back as he crawled, and traveled up to his shoulder. No organ or bone were hit. In time, French returned to his unit.
• • •
French, a Carrollwood resident now 67, met with his old lieutenant sometime around 2000. They talked at French's home long into the night, sharing memories ugly and benign.
The lieutenant, Jack Benedick, of Golden, Colo., asked him about the Bronze Star. French received a Purple Heart, but he didn't know anything about a Bronze Star. Benedick was infuriated.
"He deserved it," Benedick later said. "He earned it."
French, a retired postal worker with a combat veteran's indifference to decorations, said he didn't much care. But Benedick wouldn't let it go.
The military bureaucracy moved slowly. Benedick said he filed the appropriate paperwork again and again.
"During numerous firefights and several large battles," Benedick would write, "French consistently displayed exceptional performance. . . . French's loyalty, diligence and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself . . . and the United States Army."
• • •
Tuesday, French and his family will visit U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base. Major Gen. Karl Horst, CentCom chief of staff, will salute the kid from Tampa. Then Horst will present him with the Bronze Star.
Kind words will be spoken. A brutal war will be remembered. And a veteran who wondered if he'd ever survive the steaming Mekong will look to his 12-year-old granddaughter, Amber Griffeth, and hope she one day understands that her grandfather simply did his duty.
"She's the future," French said. "I'm doing this for her."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected]