President Trump to award Medal of Honor to Vietnam commando for valor in Laos
WASHINGTON — Four days fighting for survival in the jungles of Laos come back instantly to medic Gary Rose.
Bullets banging off the bottom of the Marine helicopter as they headed deep behind enemy lines on Sept. 11, 1970. Doling out doses of morphine to keep the walking wounded moving to avoid capture. Saving lives, risking his own, hobbling around a foot with a hole blown through it.
It was heroism so astonishing that President Trump will recognize Rose with the Medal of Honor in an October 23 ceremony, the White House said Wednesday.
That it took so long to pin Rose, now 69, with the nation's highest award for valor stems from the secrecy of his mission, the controversy that sprouted about it in the late 1990s, and the investigation that cleared the names of Rose and his fellow commandos.
“When I think about that four days a half century later, it was almost like one 96-hour day,” Rose told USA TODAY in an interview. “Because we got very little sleep. We catnapped a little bit. More or less, I just drank water, but I don’t remember eating much. And we were in constant contact. Starting at the end of the second day, it never let up.”
A native Californian, Rose enlisted in the Army, at his father’s urging, so that he could avoid being drafted by the Navy or Marine Corps. He tested well and earned a place as a medic in Army Special Forces, the Green Berets.
Rose eventually was assigned to the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam — Studies and Observations Group, 5th Special Forces Group. The jargony name camouflaged the unit’s real purpose: to join forces with local fighters to attack North Vietnamese forces in neighboring Laos — officially off limits for combat — along the famed supply line, the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Even today, the Army’s battle narrative released sketches out the battle but never mentions Laos. And the White House, in announcing the medal, said the award was "for conspicuous gallantry during the Vietnam War," obscuring the location of that gallantry as somewhere "deep in enemy-controlled territory."
In 1970, the CIA's covert operations there were flagging. Into the breach flew Rose, 15 Americans and about 100 indigenous Vietnamese fighters known as Montagnards.
Marine Corps helicopters ferried them more than 40 miles behind enemy lines. As they neared their landing zone, gunners on the ground peppered the hulls of the helicopters with so many rounds that it “sounded like somebody popping popcorn, but it was rounds hitting the hull," Rose said.
Two Montagnards were hit immediately. Soon, the reason for the resistance became clear: Rose and his comrades had landed near a major supply hub for the North Vietnamese Army, known as the NVA.
“From the get go we started taking attack fire from the NVA,” Rose said. “At that point, it increased by the hour because they knew we were in there, and they started massing more people to come at us.”
Two Americans were also hit, and Rose, firing his weapon, sprinted to the aid of one man who had been trapped and carried the man back through “heavy gunfire,” according the Army’s account of the battle.
It was a maneuver that repeatedly jumps off the page of the Army’s account. “Sgt. Rose, bravely and courageously, with no regard for his own safety, moved through the enemy fire to render lifesaving medical treatment to the mounting wounded, personally engaging the enemy to get the wounded men.”
On Day 2, Rose himself was wounded while aiding a wounded Montagnard. The soldier had been hit more than 50 yards beyond the perimeter Rose’s company had set up. Rose dragged the man with one hand, and fired back at the enemy with the other. A rocket-propelled grenade burst near him, its shrapnel tearing into his back, leg and foot.
“I had a hole blown through my foot about the size of your thumb,” Rose said. “On my right foot. That night I took my boot off to see how bad it was. My index finger, my whole finger slipped into the hole. So, I took my finger out. I remember putting my sock back on. I remember thinking, I’ll worry about that later."
The wound anywhere else would have required immediate treatment.
“In the middle of Laos in that environment?” Rose said. “It was like, 'Here’s a Band Aid, take two aspirin and see me in the morning' moment.”
By the fourth day of constant attack by rockets, grenades, mortars and small-arms fire, the Americans and Montagnards had run low on ammunition and medical supplies. Air strikes from the Air Force and Marine Corps kept the North Vietnamese from overrunning their position.
The troops from Company B had to stay on the move to avoid being annihilated, he said.
“I was doing things that my instructors in medical school would have been horrified about,” Rose said. “You take a quarter grain of morphine syringe, which looks like a small, little tube of toothpaste with a long needle in it. You’re not supposed to use the needle on more than one person. I would divide that quarter grain into four shots for four people because of my walking wounded.
“What I was doing was giving them enough morphine to tolerate the walking, and tie their hands to somebody’s ruck sack and keep them moving.”
The thought of making it out alive didn’t occur to him, he said.
'In the moment'
“If you’re trying to shepherd 51 injured people through the jungle in a combat environment, where you’re constantly taking rocket and mortar and machine gun and small arms fire, you really don’t have time to think about whether you’re going to get out of there or not,” Rose said. “You’re in the moment. You have to be. You have to be concentrating on what you’re doing.”
Helicopters arrived under heavy fire to evacuate the company. Rose continued treating soldiers and fighting off the enemy, according to the Army’s account.
“I even gave my rifle away in the middle of the firefight to go out and get another one from a wounded guy,” Rose said.
He hobbled onto the last helicopter under heavy fire. A Marine gunner was wounded in the throat, and Rose treated him before the aircraft he was in crashed just miles away.
More wounded, more men for Rose to treat.
Rose pulled the men from the burning wreckage and tended to their wounds until another helicopter arrived.
“On return to base, Sgt. Rose, covered in blood and wounds, refused all treatment until the other wounded men were attended to first,” according to the Army’s account. "Despite the many wounded, only three men died during the four days of almost constant contact with a superior enemy force deep in enemy territory.”
Rose estimated his unit tied up as many as 50,000 North Vietnamese troops, saving the lives of an untold number of American and allied lives.
For his exceptional bravery, Rose earned the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for valor. He went on to become an officer and serve “20 years, 27 days, 12 hours in the Army.”
The story seemed like a remarkable-but-closed chapter on the divisive war in Vietnam. Then in 1998, CNN and Time magazine reported that Rose and the soldiers involved in Operation Tailwind had been sent to Laos to capture American defectors, had used deadly Sarin nerve gas in their attack and had killed innocent civilians.
A Pentagon investigation found that tear gas was used during the evacuation but not Sarin or any other nerve agent. Further, the mission was not aimed at defectors, but instead had collected intelligence on logistics for the North Vietnamese army and destroyed their supplies. All 16 Americans on the mission were wounded.
CNN soon retracted the story, acknowledging that its account was fundamentally wrong.
Last year, Congress passed legislation authorizing the Medal of Honor for Rose, waiving the five-year time limit for events that now happened 47 years ago.
Rose and his wife Margaret have been married since 1971. They have three adult children and two grandchildren. Retired in Huntsville, Ala., he stays active with the Knights of Columbus, delivering food to the needy and raising funds for people with disabilities.
“I’m even more proud of him than I was before,” Margaret Rose said. “Our children are very proud of him. And he has two grandchildren who think he’s the greatest Papa. We’re very proud of him.”