Medal of Honor
ROCCO, LOUIS R.
Rank and organization: Warrant Officer (then Sergeant First Class), U.S. Army, Advisory Team 162, U.S. Military Assistance Command.
Place and date: Northeast of Katum, Republic of Vietnam, 24 May 1970.
Entered service at: Los Angeles, California
Born: 19 November 1938, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Warrant Officer Rocco distinguished himself when he volunteered to accompany a medical evacuation team on an urgent mission to evacuate 8 critically wounded Army of the Republic of Vietnam personnel. As the helicopter approached the landing zone, it became the target for intense enemy automatic weapons fire. Disregarding his own safety, WO Rocco identified and placed accurate suppressive fire on the enemy positions as the aircraft descended toward the landing zone. Sustaining major damage from the enemy fire, the aircraft was forced to crash land, causing WO Rocco to sustain a fractured wrist and hip and a severely bruised back. Ignoring his injuries, he extracted the survivors from the burning wreckage, sustaining burns to his own body. Despite intense enemy fire, WO Rocco carried each unconscious man across approximately 20 meters of exposed terrain to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam perimeter. On each trip, his severely burned hands and broken wrist caused excruciating pain, but the lives of the unconscious crash survivors were more important than his personal discomfort, and he continued his rescue efforts. Once inside the friendly position, WO Rocco helped administer first aid to his wounded comrades until his wounds and burns caused him to collapse and lose consciousness. His bravery under fire and intense devotion to duty were directly responsible for saving 3 of his fellow soldiers from certain death. His unparalleled bravery in the face of enemy fire, his complete disregard for his own pain and injuries, and his performance were far above and beyond the call of duty and were in keeping with the highest traditions of self sacrifice and courage of the military service.
Richard Rocco in 1992. Thanks to Mike <firstname.lastname@example.org> for the picture
Richard Rocco, Medal of Honor Recipient, Is Dead at 63
By RICHARD GOLDSTEIN November 4, 2002
Richard Rocco, an Army medic in the Vietnam War who received the Medal of Honor for rescuing severely wounded fellow crewmen from the wreckage of a downed helicopter under enemy fire, died on Thursday at his home in San Antonio. He was 63.
The cause was cancer, his wife, Maria, said.
On May 24, 1970, Mr. Rocco, a sergeant, was aboard a medical evacuation helicopter that was shot down on a mission to remove wounded South Vietnamese troops besieged near the village of Katum.
"We started taking fire from all directions," he recalled in a 1998 interview with The American Forces Information Service. "The pilot was shot through the leg. The helicopter spun around and crashed in an open field, turned on its side and started burning. The co-pilot's arm was ripped off it was just hanging."
Mr. Rocco suffered back injuries, a broken hip and a broken wrist, and the other four crew members were shot.
"I guess I was going on reflexes," he said. "I jumped out and pulled the pilot out first. I looked for cover and saw a big tree lying on the ground. I dragged him to the tree, knowing that any time I was going to get shot."
Mr. Rocco went back to the helicopter and carried the co-pilot, the crew chief and another medic to cover, one at a time, crossing 20 yards of open ground under a hail of fire, his hands and face burned by flames engulfing the helicopter.
The next day, two American helicopters were shot down trying to evacuate the crewmen, who had called in artillery and air strikes on their own position to turn back an assault by North Vietnamese troops. But all five crew members were rescued on that second day. "They didn't have time for litters or anything else," Mr. Rocco recalled. "They just threw us into the helicopter and took off."
The commander of the First Cavalry Division visited Mr. Rocco at a hospital and told him he had been recommended for the Medal of Honor. But he heard nothing more about that until 1974, when he was stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., and was told he would receive the medal, the nation's highest award for valor.
Mr. Rocco had not known that the co-pilot he saved, Lt. Lee Caubarreaux, had been lobbying in his behalf.
In March 1971, while Mr. Caubarreaux was preparing for a medical retirement in Texas, the Medal of Honor recommendation was mailed to him by a warrant officer in the First Cavalry Division awards office in South Vietnam who had found it in a desk drawer.
Mr. Caubarreaux appealed to Army authorities to approve the award, then recounted Mr. Rocco's exploits to Senator Russell Long of Louisiana, Mr. Caubarreaux's home state. Those efforts finally prevailed when President Gerald R. Ford presented the Medal of Honor to Mr. Rocco on Dec. 12, 1974.
Louis Richard Rocco, a native of Albuquerque, retired from the Army as a chief warrant officer in 1978 after 22 years of military service. He re-enlisted in 1991, in the Persian Gulf war, and spent six months at Fort Sam Houston, Tex., recruiting medical personnel.
Mr. Rocco worked extensively as a veterans counselor. He also spoke to schoolchildren about drug abuse on behalf of Vietnam Veterans of America.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Rocco is survived his sons Roy, of Simi Valley, Calif., and Brian, of San Diego; a daughter, Theresa DuBois of Carson City, Nev.; his mother, Lita Rocco, of Hemet, Calif.; a brother, Clyde, of San Antonio; four sisters, Sandra Schmidt and Gayle Rocco, both of Hemet, Mary Rocco of San Jacinto, Calif., and Diane Calderon of Las Vegas; and five grandchildren.
Mr. Caubarreaux, the helicopter co-pilot, his shattered arm having been saved by doctors, told The American Forces Information Service in 1998 that if not for Mr. Rocco, "we would have burned to death in the helicopter."
"I can't screw in a light bulb with my arm," Mr. Caubarreaux said, "but I can still hug my wife."
Friends say Richard Rocco gave all - and more
By Kate Nelson, Tribune Reporter November 4, 2002
The sun had barely risen when the phone calls began. From Texas to Albuquerque. From Albuquerque to Santa Fe. From veteran to veteran to veteran.
"Did you hear about Rocco?" they asked, their voices hushed and sometimes breaking.
Louis Richard Rocco, a South Valley native, a heroic soldier, a veterans' advocate and an angel on Earth, had died.
Just before 6 a.m. Thursday in his San Antonio, Texas, home, he rested in the arms of his wife, Maria Rocco. He had said he felt cold; she was trying to keep him warm.
Rocco, 63, had battled cancer in his lungs and spine for 10 months - two months more than doctors predicted he would have.
Even so, he seemed to be doing well.
"We thought we would have another Christmas with him," said Linda Hastings, Maria's daughter, who lives in Albuquerque.
Quietly, gently and finally at peace with the demons of the Vietnam War, Rocco died in his wife's arms.
"This is such a huge loss, for everyone," Hastings said.
That sentiment echoed across the ranks of Vietnam veterans in Albuquerque who had benefited from the programs Rocco developed.
In 1974, he became the only New Mexican to receive the Medal of Honor for Vietnam service while still alive. The medal, our nation's highest military honor, requires even generals to salute its recipients.
Among veterans, it carries a mythic status. Around Rocco's neck, it became a tool for creating a host of programs and services that eased the coming-home agonies of Vietnam veterans.
"I've known Richard since '78 when he started the Vet Center on Fourth Street," said Pete Stines, a Marine Corps veteran and one of Rocco's best friends. "I went there because I needed help.
"He understood where I was coming from with my problems of post-traumatic stress disorder. He was that way with everyone - trying to help them with their fears and anxieties."
Besides the Vet Center, Rocco started a shelter for homeless veterans, a nursing home in Truth or Consequences and tuition waivers for veterans attending state-run colleges.
He served as director of the state's Veterans Service Commission and later counseled veterans leaving the service of New Mexico military bases.
In recent years, even as his health failed, Rocco worked on programs to keep children away from drugs and violence.
"Richard was a hero while serving in Vietnam," U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson said in a prepared statement. "He was even more of a hero to our veterans after he came home."
Wilson, an Albuquerque Republican, met Rocco for the first time Oct. 12 during a ceremony at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Local veterans announced during the event that they were naming a park next to the Westside Community Center after him: the Richard Rocco Medal of Honor Park.
Rocco called the ceremony "an honor that I hold above presidents and legislators, because these are my people. For them to honor me, it makes me feel so good."
On Thursday afternoon, in glorious T-shirt weather, a dozen children clambered on a jungle gym at the proposed Rocco park in Albuquerque's South Valley. David Sanchez, a 19-year-old special-events coordinator for the kids, looked on.
"It's kind of inspiring how people could do the kinds of things he did," Sanchez said of Rocco. "I think he'll be a good role model for kids in this neighborhood."
Rocco was born in the South Valley and spent much of his youth there, mired in poverty. He fell into trouble with the law as a teenager and, in 1956, was one step short of a jail term when an Army recruiter saved him.
A few years later, Rocco was working as a medic for the Army when he had the chance to save the badly injured recruiter's life.
In 1974, on his second tour in Vietnam, his medical-evacuation helicopter went down amid enemy fire. Despite a broken hip, fractured wrist and injured back, Rocco pulled three of his comrades from the burning wreckage.
He carried each one to safety and started first aid before passing out. Two days passed before the four of them could be rescued.
Four years later, President Gerald Ford presented Rocco with the Medal of Honor for that act of courage.
"A medic's primary duty is to save and protect," said Al Valdez, an Army veteran and Rocco's longtime friend. "Richard spent his whole life healing."
As a former Bernalillo County commissioner, Valdez is accustomed to the rough-and-tumble world of politics. But when discussing Rocco, his composure crumbled.
"My favorite memory of him is his hug," Valdez said, his voice catching on each word. "His hug, his handshake and, when you looked in his eye, the commitment - that sense of security you had when Richard said he was going to do something.
"He's probably the best example to me of an officer and a gentleman."
Many of his friends noted Rocco's humility and his reluctance to even mention the Medal of Honor. Stines had known him for months before he learned of it.
"He was the kind of person you looked up to as a mentor, a friend and a buddy - someone who would do anything for you," Stines said. "And you knew that he would because he'd already done it."
Rocco was an avid cook and once won the New Mexico Chile Cook-Off - an award that he bragged about to his future wife before letting on about the Medal of Honor.
He also adored hot rods and, upon his cancer diagnosis, lamented that he would never get to realize his lifelong dream of owning a souped-up '34 Ford coupe.
But while he recovered from lung surgery, Gordon Chisenhall, a San Antonio friend, managed to snag the perfect car. He doctored it up in secret and surprised Rocco upon his release from the hospital.
"He was always doing things for other people," Chisenhall said. "This was exactly what he wanted, an ultimate little toy."
In an interview with The Tribune, Rocco said he had put aside his anger at the Vietnam War and at how its veterans were treated upon coming home.
"I'm going to die," he said. "I don't want to die angry."
New Mexico veterans plan to travel to San Antonio for Rocco's funeral services next week. They are also planning a service in Albuquerque.
"Richard was our godfather, the guy who guided us through," said John Garcia, an Army veteran and director of the Barelas Community Development Corp.
"He was given the Medal of Honor by our country. But I think he also wears a Medal of Honor from the hearts of all the veterans that he helped."
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