Army story by David Vergun
Forty-five years after Jose Rodela’s actions in Vietnam earned him the Distinguished Service Cross, his medal was upgraded to the nation’s highest – the Medal of Honor for his gallantry, intrepidity and heroism above and beyond the call of duty.
Rodela distinguished himself during combat in Phuoc Long Province, South Vietnam, Sept. 1, 1969, while serving as the company commander of a mobile strike force with 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne).
Rodela’s entire company was made up of Cambodian soldiers whom, he said, he helped recruit from Cambodia.
“Every three months we’d go to Cambodia, load up the volunteers in C-130s, and take them to war,” he said, during an interview in December 2013. He added that he trained them how to fire the M-16 rifle and other combat skills prior to action.
For some missions, Rodela said he helped recruit Vietnamese fighters, but never mixed them with Cambodians in the same unit because they “didn’t like each other.”
Rodela said he spoke some Vietnamese and Cambodian, but had a Cambodian interpreter. During their free time, he’d help the interpreter improve his English.
He credits his extensive Green Beret training with not only learning the art of war, but also advanced first aid, which he said became especially useful for treating the wounded and injured in his company, which was without a medic and far from garrison.
On that fateful day in September, his company was in search of the enemy, he said during an interview before his Medal of Honor ceremony. “We looked for them, found them and killed them,” he said. “That’s what we were there to do.”
Unfortunately for him and his men, the North Vietnamese Army troops they were up against outnumbered and outgunned them, he said. “They were well prepared, just like we were.”
As soon as they engaged, they came under an intense barrage of mortar, rocket and machine-gun fire, according to the Medal of Honor citation, which continues:
“Rodela disregarded the withering enemy fire, immediately began to move from man to man in his company, physically pushing them into defensive positions to form a half moon perimeter.
“His clear thinking and quick action prevented much heavier casualties in his company and relieved the pressure of the remainder of the battalion, providing time to organize a defensive perimeter.”
The citation describes the ensuing battle in which 33 in his company were wounded and 11 killed. A supporting document to the citation notes that the battle continued for 18 hours.
Later in the battle, according to the citation, “Rodela suddenly jumped up. He was the only member of his company who was moving and he began to run from one position to the next, checking for casualties and moving survivors into different positions in an attempt to form a stable defense line.
“Throughout the battle, in spite of his wounds, Rodela repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to attend to the fallen and eliminate an enemy rocket position.”
Looking back on that day, Rodela said matter-of-factly,”we trained for this and I would have done it again.”
Prior to the day he was medically evacuated, Rodela said he and his company would be on continuous, extended missions where they would often make enemy contact, based mostly on intelligence from locals. He said he did these types of missions for a total of 20 months.
They supplemented their rations, which were airdropped from C-130 cargo planes, by foraging for vegetation and animals. The men in his unit knew what was edible and what was not, and Rodela himself had survival training and skills, learned during his Green Beret training.
During a recruiting mission into Cambodia, Rodela said he came across a 12-year-old Cambodian orphan who wanted to join his unit. With no one to care for him in his village, the unit took him in.
Rodela said he was making plans to adopt the boy and bring him to the U.S. Unfortunately, the boy stepped on a mine during a night mission and was killed. Rodela was injured on his right side during the explosion, but later returned to duty.
That incident was the hardest he faced during his service in Vietnam and he said that he cried a lot whenever he thought about it. “I already considered him my son.”
After recovering from his wounds, Rodela said he continued to serve in the Army “doing similar things we did in Vietnam,” only now training and leading militaries in Central and South America. Rodela said his perfect Spanish came in handy, in addition to his extensive combat experience and training skills.
In December 1975, Rodela retired after serving in the Army for 20 years. He prefers not to discuss what he did after retirement and was hesitant to even discuss his service in Vietnam. He said he was surprised to learn that he’d receive the Medal of Honor, and added that the greatest honor he ever had was serving with his men.
Rodela now lives in San Antonio, Texas, in the state he’s always called home. He had enlisted right out of high school in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1955, “because my friends did.” He also later joined the Green Berets because his buddies did.
Rodela said he’s never gone back to Vietnam or Cambodia to visit, but has been in contact with some of the Special Forces Soldiers he served with who live in the San Antonio area. He said “it would be interesting” to meet some of the Cambodians and Vietnamese he served with someday.
A lot of his wartime experiences he describes as “painful memories” because “I lost a lot of people.” He hasn’t even told his two sons and daughter about what he’d experienced.
Some painful memories still haunt him, however, “because you have the mission of giving them orders and they don’t come back.”
“I feel better keeping to myself,” he added.
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