Medal of Honor recipients visit Juneau station

Posted: Thursday, January 06, 2011

Looking out at a sea of young United States Coast Guardsmen, 67-year-old retired U.S. Army Maj. Drew Dix, a Medal of Honor recipient said, "The faces don't change, the uniforms do."

Dix was the first enlisted man in the U.S. Army Special Forces to be awarded the Medal of Honor; he later received a commission. He was joined at Coast Guard Station Juneau on Tuesday by fellow Medal of Honor recipients Jay Vargas, 73, a retired United States Marine Corps colonel, and retired Marine Master Sgt. Richard Pittman, 65, to speak to assembled guardsmen.

"You don't have to pull a trigger to serve," Pittman said. "What you guys do every day is just as important. And you don't have to pull the trigger to have stress."

The three were on their way to Kodiak to take part in a ceremony and dedication of a bust of Douglas A. Munro -- a Coast Guard signalman who died heroically on Guadalcanal Sept. 27, 1942 -- to be presented to the 378-foot cutter Munro at Station Kodiak. Munro received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his actions of using his craft as a shield between the beachhead and Japanese fire, which cost him his life, as Marines were evacuated from Point Cruz.

"We are very honored to have them on board," Station Juneau Officer In Charge Senior Chief James Greenlief said. "For the district to ask us to open the station and show them what we do is an honor. What they endured and what they did they earned by taking care of their shipmates, so to speak, I hope our guys get that out of this, when somebody calls for help that is what we are here for."

Capt. Melissa Bert, commander of Coast Guard Sector Juneau, said "They are really amazing, a part of history. Hearing their stories is such a connection to our history. Just meeting them and, although their stories are harrowing, they are such really great people."

The three Medal of Honor recipients were treated to lunch and a trip on Station Juneau's 47-foot fast response rescue boat. The highlight though, for both Station Juneau and the medal recipients, was the one-on-one "deckplate" time.

"We were The Magnificent Bastards, the most decorated of any other unit, but I want you to know that a lot of us did have fathers," Vargas said of his 1968 'G' Company Fourth Marines in Vietnam. "War is one ugly son-of-a-bitch. It is not fun, it is dirty and it is ugly."

The three encouraged the guardsmen to speak up if they ever feel down.

"If you ever get into a post traumatic stress development, go forward and get help," Vargas said. "You need to take care of each other. You are a great team."

Vargas said it took more than 30 years for him to express his feelings of the horrors of combat, but now he feels good and can let it flow.

Vargas received the Medal of Honor from President Richard Nixon on May 14, 1970 for duties that began April 29, 1968. Vargas' company was unable to helicopter out of the Demilitarized Zone due to heavy artillery fire. They instead had to march. The next day, after 36 hours without sleep, they joined other units under attack on the Bo Dieu River.

Wounded by a grenade, Vargas still took out three machine-gun positions and engaged in hand-to-hand combat. His company had to dig out bodies in a cemetery to take cover. The next morning, a battalion commander ordered another assault. Low on ammo, Vargas' company had to pistol-whip, stab and beat the enemy with rifle butts. Vargas carried a Marine who pleaded for his detached arm, which Vargas returned to find. Vargas also carried the wounded commander to safety. After three days Vargas allowed himself to be treated for wounds.

Vargas also received the Silver Star and Purple Heart among numerous other decorations.

When asked to speak at a military gathering in Chicago he refused, saying, "Unless they bring in the 38 Marines that survived with me, well then, Jay Vargas will never speak there. I have worshipped, led, and admired my troops."

Vargas was a close friend of Coast Guardsman Bud Sparks, whose name is on a leadership award given each year.

"I would rather receive the Bud Sparks Award than what I have gotten," Vargas said. "He rose from seaman to four-star (admiral), Bud Sparks is one of the top honors in my book. I didn't realize how hard your jobs were here, how treacherous your assignments are. I have always admired the Coast Guard, now I salute you."

Pittman received his Medal of Honor from President Lyndon Johnson for risking his life above and beyond the call of duty as a member of First Platoon, Company I, Third Battalion, Fifth Marines during combat operations near the Demilitarized Zone on July 24, 1966.

Pittman's company suffered numerous casualties and hearing the call for more firepower, he exchanged his rifle for a machine gun. Rushing forward, Pittman silenced enemy fire at point blank range, aiding platoons pinned down and rescuing wounded soldiers. Braving mortars and small arms fire, he pushed on to confront and defeat 40 enemies, establish a foothold until the enemy withdrew and, with ammunition exhausted, he threw his last grenade in their direction.

Pittman also was awarded the National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with two bronze stars, and the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal.

Dix also received his Medal of Honor from Johnson, for actions while assigned as military adviser to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam in Chau Phu near the Cambodian border. On Jan. 31, 1968 the Viet Cong attacked in the first day of the Tet Offensive. Dix led a patrol of Vietnamese soldiers against heavily armed enemy to rescue a trapped nurse. After he learned of multiple civilians in need, he rescued them as well. Dix systematically performed rescue missions in the city under heavy fire. His actions personally resulted in 14 confirmed kills and possibly 25 more, 20 prisoners captured, and 14 citizens rescued.

Dix also was awarded the Purple Heart and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.

"It was a long time ago," Dix said of his medal, then pointed to Vargas and Pittman. "Personally my heroes are these guys here, and the other 84 Medal of Honor winners. Not one of them considers themselves heroes. What they did is not unlike what you do every day when you go out and do your duty. You are doing it for America, but what makes it different for an American is that we will do it for each other instantly."

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