As America celebrates the anniversary of its independence on July 4, a somber fact underlies the holiday of parades and picnics. The United States of America gained its nationhood in a revolution paid for by the sacrifices of soldiers, Marines and sailors.
It’s a sacrifice that continues to be paid in wars since. As the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, wrote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
Last Saturday, in a ceremony at the American Legion Post 16 that has been done thousands of times since 1776, Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, presented a combat soldier with a group of medals honoring his sacrifice and service — with one difference.
Sgt. Randy Clifford, U.S. Army, First Cavalry Division (Air), 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, earned his medals decades ago.
“It is truly my privilege to stand here today and deliver what’s an unbelievable group of medals 42 years after you last saw your medals,” Begich said.
Along with the Army Commendation Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal and the Vietnam Campaign Medal, Clifford received the Bronze Star for heroism under fire, the Purple Heart for his wounds in action and the Air Medal with seven devices, signifying that he flew at least 125 combat hours.
“It’s been a long wait for them,” Clifford said. “I’m glad.”
“Welcome home,” a woman in the audience of about 50 veterans and family said.
Wounded in action March 21, 1971, when an AK-47 round hit him in the back on an air attack against the North Vietnamese Army, Clifford was a week shy of leaving the army and his duffel already packed. After 12 days in a hospital in Vietnam and another 48 days in a hospital stateside, some of Clifford’s belongings caught up with him. His medals never did. Over the years Clifford had gone through the military bureaucracy trying to get replacements, but with no luck.
Now 63, and thinking he might want to pass on his heritage to his son and grandson, Clifford contacted Begich’s office.
“One email and he was on it,” Clifford said. “I didn’t expect much, to be honest with you. I expected excuses or nothing.”
Bob Doehl, a combat veteran himself who served in Afghanistan, and Begich’s special assistant for military and veterans affairs, got on the job. Doehl said he also tried the same government process Clifford did to get replacement medals and had a similar lack of results. Doehl then asked officers with veterans organizations for help.
“A couple called me back and said, ‘I could get one of these, one of those,’” Doehl said of the medals. “It took on a life of its own.”
Replacement medals can be purchased through military supply stores, Doehl said. Veterans with the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Alaska National Guard Enlisted Association came up with the seven medals and a bonus, a sergeant’s insignia patch and a patch from the First Cavalry. The veterans used their own money to find the medals. Some even donated medals of their own, Begich said.
“They also had the same feeling our office did: It would be nice to reconnect Randy with his military heritage,” Doehl said.
It’s a heritage that goes back generations, with Doehl’s grandfather serving in World War I and his father in World War II. Doehl grew up in Yreka, Calif., near the California-Oregon border. He joined the Army after starting college.
“I was bored with school,” he said. “I wasn’t learning anything.”
Five guys from his town of 5,000 already had died in Vietnam, he said.
“I thought, my family has military history,” Clifford said. “Somehow, I thought it was a good idea.”
In Vietnam, stationed out of Phuoc Vinh near the North Vietnamese border, Clifford flew in UH-1 helicopters — Hueys — the workhorse of the First Cav and the war. Many of his missions were hauling soldiers and supplies, but later he was a door gunner in a gunship, firing an electric powered minigun with six barrels that could shoot 4,000 rounds a minute. Toward the end of his war Clifford flew night missions, aerial raids into enemy territory.
“That was pretty hairy,” he said of transport missions, “but this Nighthawk thing got me out of Phuoc Vinh at night.”
The base frequently got hit by mortar attacks, he said.
“It was a way to go on the offensive instead of being on the defensive,” he said. “You get tired of the stuff with mortar rounds raining on you. You want to do something about it.”
Clifford had been on one such mission when his crew got the call to provide air support for a medevac. NVA regulars shot at Hueys trying to get wounded soldiers out of a hot landing zone. A Cobra gunship got there ahead of his helo and cleared the zone, Clifford said, so when they arrived, his gunship went hunting. They found some NVA soldiers.
Clifford was strapped into a mesh seat that the gunship crews had beefed up with armor plating in the seat and the back. Clifford’s gunship took 18 rounds from an AK-47. The third shot went through an inch-wide aluminum tube holding the seat together between the two armor plates and hit Clifford in the back, missing his spine by an inch. The gunship lost its radio and was on fire. It would be 40 minutes before they made it to safety.
“I’m one of the lucky ones. Over half the guys I flew with were either killed or wounded. … I’m not complaining. I got off easy,” Clifford said. “A lot of guys never saw their 20th birthday. If they’re any heroes around, they’re the ones.”
Clifford credited Doehl with getting his medals.
“That guy was wonderful,” he said. “He’s the one who made it happen.”
After Doehl called him to say he would get his medals, Clifford thought he would just get a box in the mail. Doehl told Clifford that Begich would present the medals to him personally. Doehl contacted Richard Turner, commandant of the American Legion Post 16, who put together the ceremony. An honor guard from the Anchor Point Veterans of Foreign Wars 10221 provided the proper military dignity.
“All those things the American Legion did there, that was amazing,” Clifford said. “They all did that. That’s just what Homer is all about. That’s what makes it an incredible place.”
Doehl said medal ceremonies he’s been to often can be poignant. Veterans pull together to help each other as part of the brotherhood and sisterhood of the military, he said.
“It’s also important for closure, for providing that recognition for all that you’ve done,” Doehl said. “All those medals represent horrific things, and probably represent friends who didn’t come back.”
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.