Medicine is full of legends and leaders, mostly MDs who are revered and admired.
However, unlike civilian medicine, there are another set of military medical leaders who are equally deserving of respect and celebration.
True front-line warriors, Medics, and Corpsmen often find themselves in the midst of hell, providing care to their patients under the most unfavorable circumstances. Whether on the high seas, snow-covered mountains, scorching deserts, or war-torn cities, Medics and Corpsmen have time and time again, selflessly sprung into action to assist wounded service members. Being a military surgical resident, I personally find great inspiration in their heroics.
One such hero is Army Master Sergeant (MSG) Roy Benavidez. Fifty-three years ago, this month, his actions in Vietnam earned him the nation’s highest award for valor in combat- the Medal of Honor.
Despite previously stepping on a landmine in Vietnam in 1965, MSG Benavidez returned to active duty and volunteered to deploy to Vietnam as a medic with a Special Forces unit in 1968. In May of ‘68, Roy heard reports of a 12-man team surrounded by over 1,000 North Vietnamese soldiers. Three previous helicopter rescue attempts were aborted due to the intense enemy fire surrounding the besieged unit. When a fourth rescue attempt was being planned, Roy without hesitation, armed only with a knife and his medic bag, sprinted aboard the aircraft.
When the helicopter was unable to land near the unit due to enemy fire, Benavidez directed it towards a clearing, where without hesitation, he jumped from the hovering helicopter. Alone and unarmed, Roy began a daring sprint across withering enemy fire to reach the pinned-down unit. Shot multiple times, he reached the besieged unit. Immediately, he began providing aid to the wounded, while simultaneously organizing a hasty defensive perimeter and coordinating for a helicopter evacuation.
When a rescue helicopter landed, Roy prioritized the loading of more severely wounded soldiers over himself. While helping to evacuate the wounded an enemy grenade landed next to him, peppering his back and face with shrapnel, knocking him to the ground. Simultaneously, upon takeoff from the hot landing zone, the rescue helicopter crashed back to earth after the pilot was shot and killed.
Now shot multiple times with his back and face covered with shrapnel wounds, Benavidez fought his way back to the landing zone to evacuate the living from the wreckage of the aircraft where again he organized a defensive perimeter while providing aid to the wounded. In addition to coordinating another rescue attempt, he directed multiple air strikes from overhead jets to stymie enemy forces from overrunning their position. However, with limited fuel, the jets eventually were forced to turn around, once again leaving Benavidez and his fellow soldiers unprotected. Thankfully, his efforts afforded his team with enough time for another helicopter rescue party to reach them prior to being overrun.
Once again, Benavidez loaded the wounded into the helicopter under enemy fire. Unable to clearly see due to blood pouring into his eyes, Benavidez continued to direct fire at enemy forces, trying to buy enough time for everyone to board the helicopter. After being shot & stabbed multiple times, Benavidez allowed himself to be loaded onto the helicopter; the last one to step off of the battlefield.
All told he had over 37 bullet, bayonet, and shrapnel wounds to his body. He remained hospitalized for over a year undergoing multiple operations for his injuries. His heroic actions that day saved eight lives, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Reagan in 1981. A link to his medal of honor speech and citation can be found below.
It’s true stories such as these that provide me a purpose for completing training. While it takes an entire health care system to care for our nation’s wounded service members, it is the surgical team that is the backbone of stabilizing the casualties brought from the battlefield by Medics and Corpsmen. It would be a tragedy to allow their heroic efforts to be in vain. MSG Benavidez’s story is just one of many stories that embody the selfless sacrifice of American service members throughout the years.
This Memorial Day weekend I encourage all Americans to take a second to reflect on the sacrifice of so many great Americans. As the years go by and service members pass away, their legacy too will die unless we take it upon ourselves to continue to share and learn from their stories.