WASHINGTON — Clarence Sasser didn’t know all the men he fought alongside in the dense forests of Vietnam.
On March 29, the Vietnam War's anniversary, he will be thinking of the Soldiers who didn’t leave Vietnam alive, most notably, the men who died on a rice paddy one harrowing day in the Southeastern Asian nation over 50 years ago.
On March 25, 1st Lt. Brian Thacker will join fellow Medal of Honor Recipients to lay wreaths at Arlington’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to honor their lives and service. Maj. Gen. Allan Pepin, commander of Joint Task Force-National Capital Region, and Military District of Washington will host the ceremony.
They will pay tribute to all the veterans of the Vietnam conflict, including the ones who remain missing to this day and those who became prisoners of war.
“They made sacrifices with what I call invisible wounds,” said retired Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Morris who received the Medal from President Obama in 2014. “They came back with [post-traumatic stress disorder] they put it all out there for us.”
“[Honoring POWs and MIAs] is always central in your mind,” said Sasser, a Texas resident. “It brings closure to acknowledge that the (MIAs) are missing.”
On January 10, 1968, Sasser, an Army combat medic, went on a helicopter reconnaissance mission in the Mekong Delta when enemy forces began firing upon his company.
Sasser’s unit landed to aid a fallen helicopter. Under the hail of North Vietnamese gunfire, Sasser darted towards injured Soldiers to treat their wounds. Even though machine gun fire rounds had immobilized him, he repeatedly treated wounded Soldiers. Those actions eventually earned him the Medal of Honor which he received from President Nixon in 1969. “I was focused on doing my job,” he said.
U.S. forces suffered 30 casualties in the first 30 minutes. Eventually, Air Force bombers later attacked the tree line to help quell the enemy and prevented U.S. forces from suffering more casualties.
But many Soldiers could not be saved as they waited to be rescued that night.
“All you could hear was guys moaning, calling for their mama,” he said in an earlier interview. “There was nothing I could do.”
The ceremonies commemorate not only National Medal of Honor Day on March 25, but on March 29 the country will honor the 51st anniversary of the Vietnam War — a conflict that changed the nation and the Army.
The war drew greater attention to cases that would later be diagnosed known as post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly shortened as PTSD.
On Jan. 11, 1969, enemy forces ambushed Fritz’s armored vehicle column along Vietnam’s Highway 13.
Although he suffered serious injuries, then-1st Lt. Fritz leaped aboard a burning vehicle and redirected the convoy’s defenses to reposition and rally his men. While exposing himself to enemy rounds, Fritz used a machine gun to defend his fellow Soldiers against North Vietcong bullets.
During a second attack, Fritz led a small charge against enemy forces dealing heavy casualties, and he would later earn the military’s highest award for valor for his courage that day.
As a Medal of Honor recipient, Fritz said he doesn’t take that responsibility lightly. To the Peoria, Illinois resident, the Medal comes with responsibility.
“A lot of recipients are just ordinary people that had to make a decision under very extraordinary circumstances,” he said. “I never expected to be a Medal of Honor recipient.”
“So you have that burden when you wear that Medal to go out and be a spokesman for the military ... for the vets, for all America.”
Fritz recalled the anti-war sentiment that prevailed in some parts of the country during the war. He said many veterans chose to hide their military service and didn’t publicize that they fought in Vietnam. For years, Fritz and other veterans of his generation worked so that Soldiers of today would not have to endure the same scrutiny.
“Many of the Vietnam veterans came back and never admitted they were in Vietnam, never admitted they were in the service because of the distaste the [public] had in this country for that [at the time]” he said.
“It was a time of turmoil and chaos in America,” Sasser said. “Being a Soldier wasn’t looked as being a good thing to be or do.”
After Fritz retired from the Army in 1993 as a lieutenant colonel, he led the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program. The program was an initiative created by President Ronald Reagan that helped Vietnam vets land positions in the civilian workforce.
Fritz spent eight years in the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, eventually becoming the deputy director for programs and services. He said he also wants the public to know that today’s veterans who go to war face the same dangers that the service members who fought in Vietnam faced.
Sasser spent 30 years working for the Department of Veterans Affairs, making decisions on veterans’ disability cases including those diagnosed with PTSD.
Morris enlisted in the Army in 1959 for career opportunities in the military. He became one of the first Soldiers in Special Forces to don the famed Green Beret.
On Sept. 17, 1969, near a minefield in Chi Lang, Vietnam, enemy forces attacked Morris’ company and other U.S Army units. Morris, a team leader learned that another Soldier commander had been killed near a North Vietnamese bunker.
“Being a Green Beret I probably understood more than the threat of communism was bad,” Morris said. “We will always talk about the domino effect. We knew the purpose of going [to Vietnam]. And I did it with pride.”
Morris then mounted a counterattack with two-man flanking him. The enemy wounded both Soldiers accompanying him. Morris responded by charging forward and exposing himself to enemy fire with only suppressive fire from his fellow Soldiers as support.
Morris successfully eliminated four enemy bunkers by tossing grenades at hostile forces.
Since Morris retired from active duty in 1985, he has spent up to 12 times per year speaking to students ranging from middle schools to college about careers in the military.
“I've never encouraged anyone to join the military, it’s an individual decision,” he said. “But you know, I do try to educate them.”
Morris said that he focuses on educating students on the military and Army lifestyle but leaves the decision to join to each individual student.