Vietnam vet presented long-overdue award
October 27, 2011
FORT BLISS, Texas (Oct. 27, 2011) -- More than 40 years ago, a young Navy reservist from El Paso, a single son who qualified for the "sole surviving son exemption" from combat service, volunteered for deployment when his unit was activated in 1968. In the late 1960s, most unit deployments meant a tour of duty in the Republic of Vietnam.
For Gustavo "Gus" Rodriguez Sr., his nation's calling was not an option; it was a deep, heartfelt obligation.
"My country wants me, so I have to serve my country," said Rodriguez, as he explained that as a reservist he clearly understood that his unit could be deployed. His commitment was also a personal matter since both of his brothers-in-law were in the same unit -- all were U.S. Navy "Seabees."
As members of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 22, based in El Paso, Texas, the Seabees deployed to Camp Haskins, Da Nang, South Vietnam, in August 1968; their mission was to complete needed construction projects at surrounding military compounds. Regarded as highly skilled military specialists, the Seabees quickly found themselves trading their construction tools for weapons of war to counter repeated enemy attacks. The assaults on the Seabees included repeated barrages of rockets and mortars.
"I was scared," said Rodriguez while describing his first combat experiences. "That's when my hair turned white," he jokingly added.
During their eight-month tour, the Seabees suffered three combat fatalities and several sustained combat injuries. Rodriguez returned to El Paso unharmed in March 1969. Waiting for him were his wife, Elma, and their three children, Gus Jr., Monica and Elma.
Years later, his experiences in Vietnam resurfaced.
"It really hit home when I saw the movie 'Taking Chance.'" In the movie, based on a true story, Lt. Col. Strobl volunteered to escort the remains of Marine Pfc. Chance Phelps back to his hometown from the war in Iraq.
"I could have come back in a casket too," Rodriguez said.
After hearing about presentations of past-due awards to other veterans, the 76-year-old submitted a request for his long-overdue award of the U.S. Navy Combat Action Ribbon.
After the required proof of his direct involvement in combat operations was reviewed, the Navy approved the coveted combat award -- the long-deserved recognition was sent to him via regular mail.
His son, Gustavo "Gus" Rodriguez Jr., a well-known supporter of Fort Bliss, Soldiers and military family members, was not satisfied with the informal process through which his father received the award. Without his father's knowledge, Rodriguez Jr. took possession of the award and started a personal campaign to have the award formally presented.
"I have been to many military ceremonies and know the importance of this award. I could not allow my father to miss out on being recognized for such a great honor," said Rodriguez Jr.
Through his Fort Bliss contacts, which included his brother-in-law, Joint Task Force North Chief of Staff Col. Forrest E. Smith, the younger Rodriguez arranged a surprise ceremony to be held during the city's Navy Week celebration. The event was conducted concurrently with the annual Amigo Airsho, which featured the Navy's Blue Angels and included a visit by a well-known native son -- Navy Rear Adm. David A. Dunaway, commander of the Navy's Operational Test and Evaluation Force.
Dunaway, a classmate of Rodriguez Jr. at El Paso's Burges High School, quickly agreed to personally present the award to the Navy veteran. In an effort to maintain the element of surprise, the younger Rodriguez conceived a cover story centered on the admiral's desire to meet with local Navy veterans at the JTF North headquarters.
Before agreeing to attend the meeting, Rodriguez remarked to his son, "I have been out of the service for 43 years. What does he want to talk to me about?"
With support of Rodriguez's immediate family members and friends, the true purpose of the meeting was kept a secret from the veteran Sailor until the admiral completed his opening remarks at the Oct. 20 staged meeting. The true purpose of the meeting became apparent to Rodriguez when the narrator read his name and asked him to join the admiral at center stage. The admiral immediately directed that the award citation be read and presented Rodriguez the Navy Combat Action Ribbon.
"It was a complete surprise," Rodriguez said.
After the ceremony, Rodriguez remarked that the secret had almost been revealed when his son asked him for copies of his military records. He became more suspicious just before the meeting.
"My wife almost gave it away when she said, 'I will be going with you to JTF North.' I said, you are not a Seabee and you are not a veteran, so what's your connection?"
In the end, the secret was maintained until his son's wish for his father was fulfilled.