FORT RILEY, Kan. (WIBW) -- An awards ceremony that's been years in the making has reunited current Fort Riley soldiers with those who went before them in combat.
After nearly 43 years, several Vietnam veterans were honored for their bravery Friday, decades after achieving success on the battlefield.
Four veterans from 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, finally received their Silver Stars Friday morning on Fort Riley's Custer Hill. One veteran of the 16th Infantry was also awarded a Bronze Star for Valor.
The awards for heroism stem from a battle that took place August 12, 1969 in Quan Loi, South Vietnam. During the battle, soldiers with the Alpha and Bandido Charlie companies of the 16th Infantry Regiment, plus Delta company, 5/7th Cavalry from the 1st Air Cavalry Division to the rubber plantation West of Quan Loi.
Two regiments with the North Vietnamese Army were waiting, dug in with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. The ensuing 11 hour battle was carried out without any supporting air, artillery, or gunship assets allowed. At the end of the day, the Vietnamese soldiers were driven from the field, back to their Cambodian safe haven.
"We had reports that the North Vietnamese were active near the Cambodian border and we went up to intercept them... They ambushed us. A lot of people were shooting at us with RPGs and AK-47s and just so much fire power-I’d never seen so much. I got shot a couple of times and hit with an RPG and they finally airlifted me out...We had two companies and between all of us, we had about 68 casualties but I don’t know how many of the enemy soldiers died. We couldn’t get air support or artillery support because we were fighting under the canopies of rubber trees and we couldn’t call in fire so that was a big hindrance to us but we just kept shooting and returning fire. We overcame the North Vietnamese soldiers and they’re very good soldiers," said Al Herrera, a veteran who fought in the battle.
"A force of about 300 U.S. soldiers were attacked by enemy forces of between 600-800 soldiers. The action took place over almost the entire day. They were in direct fire for 11 hours. At the end of the day, they held their ground. The enemy elements withdrew," added Lieutenant Colonel James Smith, the current commander of 1st Battalion,16th Infantry
Until now, many heroic actions from that day went unrecognized.
"Our Army during the Vietnam years was primarily a draft Army. Most of the soldiers involved were not career soldiers so a lot of them excited the service when they got home from Vietnam," Smith explained.
"When we left Vietnam in 1969, we dispersed and never saw each other again until 2003- we didn’t even know each other existed until then," Herrera told WIBW.
It was then that their former battalion commander and company commander decided it was time their former soldiers were awarded for their courage that day. They worked for years to make it happen, doing research, collecting evidence and interviews and contacting legislators and Army officials.
"They took witness accounts, took statements and they continued to work with the Department of Army and the Secretary of the Army recently approved these awards," Lieutenant Colonel Smith said.
"I’ve never forgotten that day. It had such an impact on my life. I can say that all of the soldiers did great on that day. And today, I’m glad that I’m here. I’m proud that I am here. They’re great folks- today and they were then," Herrera revealed, his Silver Star proudly on his lapel.
The Vietnam veterans from 1-16 Infantry were awarded medals alongside Sergeant Brian Jergens, a wounded veteran from the regiment’s recent deployment to Afghanistan. Jergens received several awards for his service, including a Purple Heart, Combat Action Badge and the Army Commendation Medal. He lost his legs and suffered a traumatic brain injury in an IED attack last year.
"Throughout our history, we have had great citizens who have taken the challenge of serving and defending their nation. Today, we have two generations that were tying together with this ceremony, recognizing them for their heroic actions in their service so it’s a great day. It’s a great day for the 1st Battalion. It’s a great day for the Big Red One division and it’s a great day for our Army," LTC Smith said.