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Roger Donlon, the first Medal of Honor recipient of Vietnam War, dies at 89

Roger Hugh Charles Donlon, the first American to receive the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War, died Thursday in Leavenworth, Kan., the Congressional Medal of Honor Society announced.

A native of Saugerties, N.Y., Donlon died five days short of his 90th birthday.

Donlon died of Parkinson’s disease that family members said was connected to exposure to the toxic defoliant Agent Orange dropped by U.S. aircraft over jungles in Vietnam during the war.

President Lyndon Johnson presented Donlon with the nation’s highest honor for bravery in combat during a ceremony at the White House on Dec. 5, 1964.

Donlon said it was for others to judge the degree of his bravery.

“Heroism is a product of what other people see,” he said.

Five months earlier, Donlon was a 30-year-old Army Green Beret captain commanding “Team A-726” at Nam Dong in South Vietnam, in the narrow part of the country west of Da Nang near the border with Laos.

A former Air Force airman and drop out from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Donlon had joined the Army in 1958 and graduated a second lieutenant from Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga., now called Fort Moore. He became a Green Beret in 1963 at the Army’s Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, N.C., now Fort Liberty.

Donlon and other Army Special Forces were part of Operation Switchback, a U.S. plan to replace CIA operatives with troops to help build a guerilla army called the Civilian Irregular Defense Group, according to State Department documents released after the war.

The effort was modeled along the lines of the communist Viet Cong, who fought on the side of communist North Vietnam against American-backed South Vietnam.

On the evening of July 5, Donlon and his small group of Green Berets, Australian soldiers, and South Vietnamese were attacked by at least a battalion of Viet Cong guerillas backed by North Vietnamese Army troops.

In a five-hour fight, Donlon led the defenders — outflanking enemy troops by switching positions, moving ammunition to areas where the fighting was the most intense, and pulling wounded to safety. After dawn, the attackers retreated, according to an Army report.

Two Green Berets and an Australian soldier were killed in the battle, with the Green Berets posthumously receiving the Distinguished Service Cross. Other Green Berets received the Silver Star and Bronze Star.

Official U.S. reports said 57 South Vietnamese fighting with the defenders were killed, while at least 67 attackers were killed before the majority retreated.

In August 1964, Congress passed the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution,” giving Johnson expanded powers to commit American forces into Southeast Asia. Within a year of the vote, more than 100,000 U.S. troops were sent to South Vietnam.

Johnson was elected president by a landslide in over Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater in November. Donlon received the Medal of Honor about a month later.

Donlon later wrote “Outpost of Freedom” and “Beyond Nam Dong” about his war experience and their impact on his life. Donlon attended the Army War College and retired as a colonel from the Army in 1988. He also earned a Bachelor of General Studies from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a Master of Science in government from Campbell University.

After retiring, Donlon served on the board of directors/trustees at People-to-People International. He remained active in military circles, including as a founding trustee of the Command and General Staff College Foundation.

With Donlon’s death, there are now 64 living Medal of Honor recipients, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

Author: Gary Warner


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