Ruppert Leon Sargent grew up in Hampton, Virginia, as a devout adherent to the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith. Although they identify as Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate Christian holidays, recite the Pledge of Allegiance nor salute the American flag. The church also prohibits its members from serving in the military, including service in noncombat roles for conscientious objectors. Members who do join the military are not expelled or shunned, but they usually get treated as if they had been.
Despite the prohibitions of his religion, Sargent, born Jan. 6, 1938, enlisted in the Army after graduating from Virginia State University, a historically Black school in Petersburg. Sargent spent six years as an enlisted man and then was accepted for Officer Candidate School. He was commissioned an infantry second lieutenant on Oct. 15, 1965.
In September 1966, Sargent, who by then was married and had two small children, deployed to Vietnam as a platoon leader in Company B, 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division. He rose to first lieutenant and became friends with his company commander, Capt. Watty Smith from Tennessee. Seven months later Sargent was offered the position of company executive officer. Smith congratulated the lieutenant and told him, “Your days of wading around in rice paddies and water and mud and the jungle are over.”
On March 15, 1967, Smith was sent into the jungle to investigate reports of a Viet Cong meeting house and weapons cache in Hau Nghia province west of Saigon. Since most of his soldiers were assigned other tasks that day, Smith, not expecting serious action, assembled a group of 15 cooks who were transported to the place where the reconnaissance was to begin.
“I’m getting everybody unloaded, and I look up and there stood Ruppert Sargent on the mission with me,” Smith recalled. He pulled Sargent aside and was going to chew him out for coming along but actually was glad the lieutenant showed up.
“Boss, there was no way in hell I’m going to let you come out here by yourself,” Sargent told him.
Smith led his men into the jungle. Sargent spotted a camouflaged tunnel with a booby-trapped entrance. He tried to destroy it with grenades. When that failed, he moved in with a demolitions man. They flushed out an enemy soldier who was killed by the nearby platoon sergeant.
Sargent then moved toward the tunnel entrance with the platoon sergeant and another soldier. Just then, a Viet Cong emerged and threw two grenades at the three Americans.
Sargent rapidly fired three shots at the enemy soldier. He then threw his body over the two grenades and absorbed the blast. Sargent’s sacrifice saved the lives of his two comrades, who sustained only light wounds.
A grieving Smith carried Sargent’s body from the jungle and then sat down to write a letter to Sargent’s family, another recommending him for the Medal of Honor and a third to Hampton officials to tell the community about the hometown boy’s heroism. Sargent was buried in a quiet ceremony at Hampton National Cemetery.
When Sargent’s Medal of Honor was approved in 1968, the Army faced a dilemma. The soldier’s widow, Mary Jo Sargent, also a devout member of Jehovah’s Witnesses, declined to accept the medal based on her beliefs—only the second time in history that a next-of-kin declined to accept America’s highest military honor.
However, when the Army eventually agreed to a private presentation, she consented. On March 10, 1969, Brig. Gen. Donly P. Bolton drove to the Sargent family’s home in Hampton to hand the medal and citation to her. The only others present were Sargent’s two small children.
Smith’s third letter ended up on the desk of Andy Greenwell, head of Hampton’s commerce department. Decades later, in October 2002, Hampton named a city administration building the “Ruppert L. Sargent Building.” Smith served a second tour in Vietnam and retired a major. Smith, who died in 2017, would tell people he and others owed their lives to “my best friend.” V
Doug Sterner, an Army veteran who served two tours in Vietnam, is curator of the Military Times Hall of Valor database of U.S. valor awards.
This article appeared in the December 2020 issue of Vietnam magazine.