View Full Version : Vietnam Marines find reconstructing events for military medals is not an easy process

09-29-08, 08:52 AM
Vietnam Marines find reconstructing events for military medals is not an easy process


The Marine Corps said it never received an award recommendation for Frank Ambrose for his heroic acts on a dirt road in Vietnam in 1968 -- an omission that resulted in a 40-year delay before the former lance corporal could be formally recognized for his conduct.

Ambrose received the Silver Star, the nation's third-highest combat decoration, during a morning ceremony last week at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island for his actions during the Vietnam War.

Despite claims by his battalion commander to the contrary, the Manpower Management Military Awards Branch at Headquarters Marine Corps in northern Virginiasaid an award recommendation was never filed on Ambrose's behalf.

"While Col. Rockey stated that Mr. Ambrose had been recommended for the award of the Silver Star during the Vietnam conflict, the Military Awards Branch at HQMC conducted a thorough review of Mr. Ambrose's official military personnel files and did not find any record that such an award recommendation had ever been submitted on Mr. Ambrose," according to a statement from the office.

William K. Rockey was battalion commander when Ambrose, then Pfc. Ambrose, was assigned to Mike Company, 3rd battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division after graduating from specialty school at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Rockey said he recommended that Ambrose be awarded a medal for his actions in South Vietnam when a 15-man patrol he was a part of was ambushed by North Vietnamese forces during the Tet Offensive in 1968.

While in a hospital bed in Da Nang,Ambrose said he remembered being interviewed about what happened by a one-star general and gunnery sergeant but paid it no mind when nothing came of it.

"They came in and set an eight-track recorder at the foot of the bed and just started asking me questions," he said. "I had an IV in, and I was on all kinds of drugs for the pain, so I have no idea what I told them. To be honest, I didn't expect to be alive. They didn't take PFCs as POWs, so I just assumed it was over. A lot of my brother Marines had died, and I figured I was going to die right there with them. I had written myself off."

Ambrose was flown out of the jungle that day on a MEDEVAChelicopter after initially refusing to leave to provide supression fire for another chopper transporting critically wounded Marines. According to his citation signed by Navy Secretary Donald Winter, Ambrose was seriously wounded in the left arm and chest and had pieces of shrapnel lodged behind his left eye after a rocket-propelled grenade detonated in a roadside ditch where he had sought cover.

With North Vietnamese forces launching surprise attacks against military and civilian command centers throughout South Vietnam, Rockey said he was hardly surprised when a records check revealed that the Corps never received Ambrose's recommendation.

"In the heat of Tet '68, everyone was extremely busy," he said. "I had my clerks out doing patrols, and somehow the paperwork got screwed up and about four years ago, at a reunion, the topic came up and we started reconstructing what happened."

Federal law requires that if an award recommendation is not submitted within three years of the date of action, it can be considered only if it is submitted by an officer in the chain of command who had "knowledge of the action" and contains two signed and notarized eyewitness accounts, written in their own words. The recommendation also must be endorsed by all surviving members of the chain of the command.

Capt. James Mitchell,Ambrose's company commander, submitted the awards recommendation package in July 2006.

With the events of that day reconstructed, Rockey then needed the help of a member of Congress to take up Ambrose's cause and submit the package to HQMC. He contacted U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.,who represents Ambrose, an Orlando resident.

Nelson's Washington office submitted the package to the commandant of the Marine Corps and the Secretary of the Navy to begin what the Awards Branch called "a time-consuming process that can take six months to a year." During the review, records and personnel files on the recommended Marine,recommending officer, all endorsing officers and eyewitnesses are examined to determine the validity of their claim.

Nelson was called in again to clear a bureaucratic logjam that caused further delays in getting Ambrose the recognition many thought he so richly deserved.

"I fought so hard because Frank deserved it," Rockey said. "He was a courageous, fighting Marine and he was certainly not going to be denied this honor because of some administrative holdup."

While honored by the medal and flattered by the determination of many -- particularly his former battalion commander -- Ambrose said getting the medal was never something he fixated on.

"I'm not upset or angered at the Corps, because, to be honest, I never really cared," he said. "It was something that had totally dropped out of my mind. I'm incredibly honored and flattered, but it wouldn't have made a difference in my life if I didn't get it."

Vietnam vets being honored for acts they committed decades before is hardly a new development, but the military should try to honor America's heroes in a timely fashion, said Joe Davis, national spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

"No bureaucratic system is perfect when humans are involved, but to not properly recognize people in a timely manner is a disservice to those who serve and to their families," Davis said.