“He’ll never walk again.” That was the 1966 diagnosis of a soldier whose broken body was evacuated to Fort Sam Houston in Texas. An adviser to Vietnamese soldiers, he had stepped on a mine and suffered grievous wounds. He was at the hospital to be treated and receive a medical discharge.
Life had often been difficult for Raul Perez “Roy” Benavidez, born in Cuero, Texas, on Aug. 5, 1935. His father, a Mexican farmer, died from tuberculosis when Roy was 2 years old. His mother, a Yaqui Indian, suffered the same five fate years later. Roy was raised by his grandparents. His youth included instances of racial prejudice, picking crops in California and Washington, and struggles in school.
Benavidez dropped out at 15 to help support his family. At 17 he enlisted in the Texas National Guard and in 1955 transferred to the Regular Army. He married and served with the 82nd Airborne Division before his near-fatal first tour in Vietnam.
During recovery at Fort Sam he was determined not only to walk again, but also to return to uniform. At night, he slipped out of bed, crawled to a wall and used its perpendicular surface to pull himself upright and walk unaided.
Within months, he was back with the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Amazingly, when he was 32, Benavidez was accepted for the rigorous Special Forces training and returned to Vietnam to serve with Detachment B-56, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne).
On May 2, 1968, Benavidez, a staff sergeant, passed a communications bunker when he heard a call for help over the radio. That morning the enemy had ambushed a team of three Green Berets—leader Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Wright, Staff Sgt. Floyd Mousseau, radio operator Spc. 4 Brian O’Connor—and nine militiamen from local Montagnard tribes on a reconnaissance mission 10 miles inside Cambodia.
Benavidez, without orders, grabbed a first-aid bag and hopped aboard the helicopter of Warrant Officer Larry McKibben, preparing to take off and fly into the hailstorm of enemy fire. While McKibben hovered as close as he could to the embattled team, Benavidez leaped out and raced 75 yards to the desperate men.
He was wounded in his right leg, face and head, but reached the team and repositioned them for extraction. Benavidez got on the team’s radio to direct strafing attacks and popped smoke to guide helicopters to his position. He dragged and carried wounded Montagnards to McKibben’s helicopter and then ran alongside it to provide cover fire while pointing the pilot to other team members.
As Benavidez reached Wright’s body, he was pelted by grenade fragments in his back and small-arms fire in the abdomen but got the body and classified documents to the helicopter. He was hit by an AK-47 rifle round and fell to the ground just before other rounds killed McKibben.
Benavidez returned to the overturned helicopter and formed the survivors into a defensive perimeter. He called in airstrikes to reduce the enemy fire so another helicopter could get in. Meanwhile he treated the wounded and suffered another wound of his own, in the thigh, just before the helicopter arrived. He then directed or carried his comrades to the chopper.
Benavidez was attacked from behind by an enemy who clubbed him with a rifle and wounded him with a bayonet in hand-to-hand combat, which ended with Benavidez’s knife in his opponent. Two enemy soldiers rushed the aircraft. Benavidez shot them both and made a final return to the perimeter to ensure all team members and all classified documents had been recovered.
Benavidez, who saved at least eight lives, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, which McKibben, Wright and Mousseau received posthumously. (O’Connor survived.) After attempts by Benavidez’s commander to upgrade his award, President Ronald Reagan presented Benavidez with the Medal of Honor on Feb. 24, 1981.
Benavidez died Nov. 29, 1998, at age 63. He was buried at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery. 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 June 2021 issue of Vietnam magazine. For more stories from Vietnam magazine, subscribe here and visit us on Facebook: