Monday, February 19, 2018
Military News

Vietnam veteran gets long-delayed Bronze Star

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]

Comments
Howard Altman: Later AirFest good for fundraising

Howard Altman: Later AirFest good for fundraising

On May 12 and 13, the skies above MacDill Air Force Base will be busier than usual, with Navy F-18s, Air Force F-22s and A-10s and a host of civilian stunt pilots performing impressive feats of aerobatics.It’s all part of the semi-regular Tampa Bay C...
Published: 02/16/18
VA chief Shulkin, staff misled ethics officials about European trip, report finds

VA chief Shulkin, staff misled ethics officials about European trip, report finds

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin’s chief of staff doctored an email and made false statements to create a pretext for taxpayers to cover expenses for the secretary’s wife on a 10-day trip to Europe last summer, the agency’s inspector general ...
Published: 02/14/18
Trump seeks 11 percent SOCom budget increase

Trump seeks 11 percent SOCom budget increase

President Donald Trump’s proposed military budget includes a nearly 11 percent spending increase for U.S. Special Operations Command headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base.The measure, if approved by Congress, would bump up the command’s budget by 1...
Published: 02/12/18
Everyone loves a parade? Veterans say the troops don’t.

Everyone loves a parade? Veterans say the troops don’t.

Orders from President Trump to plan a grand military parade showcasing the might of America’s armed forces has set off groans in some military quarters.The troops, it turns out, hate parades."There is not a soldier ever alive who loves a parade," sai...
Published: 02/08/18
Troops laud the low-flying ‘Warthog,’ but it’s running out of time and money

Troops laud the low-flying ‘Warthog,’ but it’s running out of time and money

AVON PARK From the cockpit of his A-10 Thunderbolt II fighter jet, a pilot speaks words known to warm the hearts of U.S. ground troops under fire."I’ve got 100 rounds 30 Mike Mike," says the pilot, seeking permission to let loose a short burst from t...
Published: 02/05/18
Updated: 02/08/18
Game show app to feature Super Bowl message that NFL rejected

Game show app to feature Super Bowl message that NFL rejected

TAMPA — Former Marine David Shimkus calls it a "slap in the face to veterans" that the NFL rejected a bid to place an ad in the Super Bowl program asking fans to stand for the national anthem.So as a senior executive with Largo-based media company Re...
Updated one month ago
Howard Altman: MacDill is classroom as Niagara Falls unit learns in-flight refueling

Howard Altman: MacDill is classroom as Niagara Falls unit learns in-flight refueling

To people in the Tampa area, the old, gray four-engine KC-135 Stratotanker jets have been a familiar sight since the mid-1990s, when MacDill Air Force Base shifted from fighter training to aerial refueling.But the planes are new to the folks up at th...
Updated one month ago
Plans for $148 million housing tower finally approved for Haley VA hospital

Plans for $148 million housing tower finally approved for Haley VA hospital

TAMPA — Long-delayed plans for a new $148.6 million medical housing unit at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center have finally been approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.The 245,000-square-building will be designed to provide 96 medical surgica...
Updated one month ago
A D-Day plane lost for years is about to fly again

A D-Day plane lost for years is about to fly again

It took two eagle-eyed historians to track down the plane that led hundreds of Allied aircraft into Normandy during World War II.A few years ago, the historical treasure was languishing in an aircraft boneyard in Wisconsin.The plane, a twin-engine C-...
Updated one month ago
Russian fighter plane buzzes U.S. Navy jet as fears over midair collisions mount

Russian fighter plane buzzes U.S. Navy jet as fears over midair collisions mount

BERLIN — In the latest in a string of dangerous encounters between Russian and NATO military jets, a U.S. Navy plane came within five feet of a Russian Su-27 jet on Monday, according to the State Department. The incident occurred in international air...
Updated one month ago