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Medal of Honor Medic

5/1/2018

by Columbia staff

An interview with Capt. Gary M. Rose about his service in the Vietnam War

Distinguished Service Cross to Sgt. Gary M. Rose

U.S Army Gen. Creighton Abrams, the U.S. commander in Vietnam, awards the Distinguished Service Cross to Sgt. Gary M. Rose Jan. 16, 1971. Photo courtesy of Gary M. Rose

Retired U.S. Army Capt. Gary Michael “Mike” Rose, a member of the Knights of Columbus, was recently awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military accolade, for his bravery during the Vietnam War.

Born in Watertown, N.Y., Oct. 17, 1947, Rose grew up in the Los Angeles area before enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1967. As a Green Beret medic, he was exposed to machine gun fire while treating nearly 70 wounded soldiers during Operation Tailwind, a secret mission in Laos Sept. 11-14, 1970 (see sidebar). Operation Tailwind remained classified for decades, and few details of Rose’s actions were made public. As a result, when his name was submitted for the Medal of Honor in 1970, he was passed over. Instead, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1971. Rose continued his career in the Army, reaching the rank of Captain before retiring in 1987. He later worked as a technical consultant in the defense and automobile industries.

Today, he resides with his wife in Huntsville, Ala., where he is involved with a number of charitable organizations, including the Knights of Columbus. A past grand knight of Good Shepherd Council 11672 in Huntsville, Capt. Rose currently serves as faithful navigator of Father Jeremiah F. Trecy Assembly 0004 in Huntsville.

President Donald Trump bestowed the Medal of Honor on Capt. Rose at a Oct. 23, 2017, White House ceremony in the presence of Rose’s wife, Margaret, their three children and two grandchildren, as well nine prior Medal of Honor recipients. Rose is the fourth Knight of Columbus to be awarded the Medal of Honor, following Sgt. Maj. Daniel Daly (1873- 1937), who received the honor twice, and Rev. (Maj.) Charles J. Watters (1927-1967) and Maj. General Patrick Brady, 81, both for their service in Vietnam.

Columbia recently spoke with Capt. Rose about his military service, his faith and his being a Knight.

COLUMBIA: Describe how you joined the U.S. Army and your early experience as a medic.

CAPT. ROSE: When I was about 19, they were heavily drafting in the Marine Corps. My father, remembering what he went through as a private in boot camp in the Marine Corps in 1942, didn’t recommend being a draftee. So I chose to join the Army.

I had been in the 7th Special Forces Group for six months at Fort Bragg when I was assigned to the 46th Company in Thailand. I worked with the border police and with the Thai Army, and I got a great amount of field experience as a medic — not combat experience, but treating diseases and injuries.

And then I was transferred to MACV-SOG (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam — Studies and Observations Group, 5th Special Forces Group), which I later found out was crossborder operations in Cambodia, Laos and North Vietnam.

COLUMBIA: So, including Operation Tailwind, you served in several different countries in the course of the war?

CAPT. ROSE: All of my combat experience was in Cambodia and Laos. In Vietnam, I was never in combat but worked in the dispensary, holding sick call for Americans and for our troops and their families. We also treated indigenous personnel needing medical help — children, women, men. It was akin to working in an emergency room.

At the time, there was a CIA operation going on in Laos, and they were getting their proverbial rear ends kicked. So they sent us in, and our job was to get on the ground and create some noise to pull off those troops.

For the next 96 hours we had a running gun battle going on. I was seriously hit on two different days. Well, in Huntsville it would be considered a serious injury. A hole in your foot or a hole in your arm, as long as you can function with your weapon, was not considered a serious injury. There were 16 Americans, and 24 Purple Hearts were issued to those 16 Americans for those four days.

COLUMBIA: You have said many times that you don’t see yourself as especially brave. Rather, in caring for other wounded soldiers even amid enemy gunfire, you were just doing your duty.

CAPT. ROSE: A lot of the things that are in the citation, and some of the witness statements, I honestly don’t remember doing them. Maybe I was so focused on the wounded that I wasn’t aware of it. When you have professional soldiers, that’s what they do. We were about as well-trained as any group of men have ever been trained. It’s very similar to your police and your firemen; when everybody else is running away from the danger, they are running to it.

I was not on the perimeter; I was working on the wounded and the injured. So it never occurred to me to worry about the enemy. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it’s not my function: My function is the wounded. A medic is part of the morale support system within the unit, because the others know that person’s job is their welfare.

When you go into combat with people, you form a bond that’s almost unbreakable. You have the sense that you were part of something greater than yourself. What I’m proud of is the fact that I was able to do my job within my unit, and I kept faith with the men I fought with. My secret pride, if you would, is that I didn’t fail them.

Rose participates in a meeting with fellow members

Rose participates in a meeting with fellow members of Council 11672 at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Huntsville March 26. Photo by Spirit Juice Studios

COLUMBIA: Describe how you were finally rescued by helicopter after four days.

CAPT. ROSE: The first two ships (helicopters) took all but 35 people out, but by the time the third ship came, it had pretty much lost its engine. After we got on, a Marine was shot in the throat — I couldn’t believe it didn’t hit anything vital.

Now there’s a lot of blood, and as I wrapped his neck, I knew he was going into shock. That’s when I yelled in his ear, “Listen, you stupid son of a b—, if you were going to die, you’d already be dead!” And he came out of shock.

The next thing I know, the ship crashed. Though I don’t remember it, Capt. McCarley later said that I looked right at him and said, “Captain, we got to get back onto that helicopter,” which was on fire by then. So I got back up inside the helicopter and started emptying everyone out.

If there hadn’t been a fourth ship, we would have been toast, because there was not a helicopter in the area large enough to extract 35 people. So we got everybody on, and we were extracted.

And I will tell you this much: If it was not for the Air Force pilots and the Marine Corps Cobra pilots — they would return to base, refuel and come back out; they didn’t get any more sleep than we did — we would have not made it. We owe our lives to those air crews.

COLUMBIA: You have said that God’s hand was clearly evident in your survival and that of your brother Green Berets. How aware were you of God’s presence during those harrowing days, and what role has your faith played since?

CAPT. ROSE: It’s your right in this country not to believe in God, to be agnostic or atheist, but I don’t see how anybody couldn’t believe in God if you were with us on that day. When I think about those four days, I don’t see how you could survive something like that without Somebody deciding it was not your time to go.

I got back home, and I got married and started a family and so on. As I look back over the last 47 years since that operation, I think I’ve got to be among the luckiest people who have ever been born. My wife and I are financially secure, and we have friends all over the country. I get to be involved in doing things that make at least my little part of the world a little better.

I think faith sometimes comes slowly; from my childhood it was embedded in my head, and it was always in the background. When I look back, I’m convinced that the good Lord for some reason likes me.

My wife is very religious, and so I think my association with her has a lot to do with it, too. I think faith gives you the subconscious and conscious tools to hopefully make good decisions about everything you do.

COLUMBIA: What led you to join the Order while serving in Panama in 1973, and what kind of volunteer activities and charitable initiatives do you participate in?

CAPT. ROSE: You really wanna know? OK, I was a sergeant and was driving for the group commander. Well, Sgt. Maj. Darcy was a Catholic, and he was the grand knight, and he found out that I was Catholic. He looked at me and said, “Ya oughta join the Knights of Columbus.” And if your sergeant major suggests you join the Knights of Columbus, it’s kind of like, “Where’s the form, and where do I sign?”

I’m a Knight of Columbus today for several reasons. One, I am in a group of very good and generous and capable and energetic men who, on a weekly basis, constantly improve our little local community.

I still look back when my kids were younger, that I could have been a little bit more tolerant, a little bit less frustrated with things — maybe not as quick to anger, if I had not gone to Vietnam. But I think the Knights have helped temper that.

Being with the Knights also provides a great means of networking throughout the city of Huntsville to get things accomplished — like getting some legal help for a single mother, making sure that intellectually disabled people are being well taken care of, or making sure kids have a safe place to go on Halloween. There are so many things Knights do for so many people. And other agencies are trying to improve the lives of others, too. You build this network of goodness. Everybody is there to make things better.

Our faith says, “Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.” Why do you go out of your way to help the elderly or the intellectually disabled? Well, it goes back to “Honor thy father and mother” and serving the least of my brothers.


OPERATION TAILWIND

THE NORTH VIETNAMESE Army (NVA) was funneling weapons and supplies south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southeastern Laos. Though Laos was neutral and off-limits to foreign troops, a Special Forces group was sent to disrupt these efforts in September 1970. The soldiers, consisting of 16 Americans and approximately 120 indigenous Montagnard personnel, were dropped by helicopter 40 miles into enemy-controlled territory. Sgt. Gary M. Rose was the lone medic among them.

DAY 1 Before the team landed, their choppers came under heavy NVA machine gun fire. After attending to the wounded on the ground, Sgt. Rose spotted a man who had been shot and was trapped outside the company’s defensive perimeter. Racing through enemy fire to reach him, he shielded the injured soldier with his body while tending his wounds. He then carried him back to safety through a hail of bullets, firing his own weapon as he went.

As the company continued its mission, Sgt. Rose repeatedly moved through enemy fire to treat the mounting number of casualties. He dug foxholes for the wounded and crawled from one to another offering medical aid and encouragement throughout the night.

Lt. Col. (Ret.) Eugene McCarley, who was Rose’s commanding officer, told The New York Times in a July 30, 2016 article, “The level of gallantry and disregard for his own safety that he showed — I’ve rarely seen anything like it.”

DAY 2 The next day, a rocketpropelled grenade exploded near the command team, spraying Rose with shrapnel that ripped a hole in his foot.

“I remember that night taking off my boot to check it out, and my middle finger slipped all the way to my knuckle,” Rose recalled. “I pulled my hand back out and said, ‘Nah I’ll worry about that some other time.’ I never thought about it until I got back after the operation.”

DAY 3 After managing to destroy an enemy base camp, the company found itself hemmed in by more than 500 NVA. They had taken on so many wounded that a medevac helicopter was called.

Rose rigged bamboo litters for the severely injured, and he stood exposed to enemy fire while attempting to pass them up to the crew on the hovering chopper. The NVA onslaught was so intense that the pilot had to abort the mission.

DAY 4 With mortar rounds raining down upon the team as extraction helicopters arrived, Rose moved under enemy fire to retrieve the allied dead and wounded. He then hobbled aboard the last chopper with the remaining wounded.

As they lifted off, a Marine door gunner was shot through the neck. Rose rushed to his aid and saved his life by stanching the bleeding. Just then, enemy fire hit the engines, and the aircraft soon crashed on a riverbank, ejecting men and spewing fuel. Rose crawled in and out of the wreckage until every man was safe.

Upon returning to base, Rose refused treatment until the others had been tended. Thanks in part to Rose’s heroic efforts, only three men had died in the operation.