By Sarah Trier, Fort Lee Public AffairsNovember 10, 2009
FORT LEE, Va. (Nov. 10, 2009) -- Retired Lt. Col. Michael Healey leaned on his wife and his nurse as they escorted him into the activity room.
His eyes searched for something familiar, not focusing on anything in particular for more than a second or two. Seeing the gathering of people seated in front of him, Healey's confusion was palpable.
In the background, patriotic songs set the mood for the occasion. It was then that Lt. Col. Hugh Davis, 262nd Quartermaster Battalion commander, rose to tell a story nearly 40 years in the making.
It was March 26, 1970, when Charlie Company, 2nd Bn., 8th Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, stumbled upon North Vietnamese bunkers on the Cambodian border and were quickly overrun, surrounded and outnumbered: 100 men to 400, according to military accounts.
Alpha Troop, 1st Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Reg. heard about it over the radio.
Based a few miles away, they volunteered to rescue their doomed brothers. Alpha Troop trekked through four kilometers of jungle terrain before coming upon the enemy. A gun and artillery battle ensued after which the jungle grew silent. Seventy Americans lay dead or wounded in the battle, but all made it home.
"Lt. Col. Healey, then a first lieutenant, took charge of his troop after his commander was injured and demonstrated the critical Army value that ensures we will leave no fallen Soldier behind," said Davis. "His courage and dedication is still seen in action today by Soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq."
President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Unit Citation to Alpha Troop at a formal ceremony at the White House on Oct. 20, for their heroism and conspicuous gallantry. The Presidential Unit Citation is the highest honor given to military units and is awarded for extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy.
The citation's degree of heroism is equal to the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest military decoration awarded in the U.S. Army.
Eighty-six Alpha Troop veterans attended the ceremony at the White House.
"As these men will tell you themselves, this isn't the story of a battle that changed the course of a war," Obama said. "It never had a name, like Tet or Hue or Khe Sanh. It never made the papers back home. But like countless battles, known and unknown, it is a proud chapter in the story of the American Soldier."
Too ill to attend the White House observance, Healey was honored amid family, friends and fellow veterans at Sitter and Barfoot Veterans Care Facility in Richmond.
All were advised that Healey might not understand or appreciate what was happening during the citation presentation.
Healey's severe dementia diagnosis and age obscure his memories of life and war and no one knew how he might respond at the ceremony.
But as Davis advanced to pin him with the distinguished citation, Healey's confusion melted into a focused smile.
Leaving the spectators in silent astonishment, Healey seemed to understand. He seemed to stand a little straighter, center his attention a little more, smile wider and beam with pride.
Davis was privileged to present the Presidential Unit Citation to the hero among Soldiers.
"I was deeply honored to be able to participate in this ceremony for Lt. Col. Healey, ensuring that he received the recognition that he and his unit earned almost 40 years ago," said Davis. "I think it's very appropriate that we take time to recognize the actions of our Vietnam veterans and to say thank you, as many did not receive the appreciation they deserved so many years ago."
Though Healey's condition prevents him from holding on to the memory of receiving this prestigious honor, his actions and the actions of Alpha Troop on March 26, 1970, will not be forgotten by the spectators at Sitter and Barfoot or in Army lore.