Hispanic Medal of Honor Recipients & Jewish Medal of Honor Recipients by Michael Lee Lanning

Lee Lanning is a prolific author and retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel who served in Vietnam as a platoon leader and rifle company commander with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade. His latest books—Hispanic Medal of Honor Recipients: American Heroes (Texas A&M University Press, 304 pp., $29.95) and Jewish Medal of Honor Recipients: American Heroes (Texas A&M, 247 pp., $29.95)—are companion pieces in every sense of the term. In them, Lanning writes about a select group of American servicemen, members of one of the country’s most exclusive and honored organizations.

Of the more than 40 million men and women who have served in the military since the formation of the Continental Army in 1775, the Medal of Honor—which was first awarded during the Civil War—has been bestowed on only 3,525. “It is the highest award for bravery given by the U.S .Armed Forces for combat against enemy forces,” Lanning writes. “It is awarded to those who distinguish themselves by gallantry and intrepidity beyond the call of duty at the risk of their own lives.”

All too often the award is bestowed posthumously. Of the MOH awardees, at least 17 were Jewish; 60 were Hispanic.

These books follow a similar pattern and complement each other. Lanning begins both with a brief description of the MOH—its history, significance, and exclusivity.

What follows is a rendition of the MOH citation for each recipient and a brief synopsis of the valorous actions the recipients performed in battle. Lanning also provides the background story for each individual; and for the living recipients, a description of their lives today.

Twenty-two Hispanic Vietnam War troops—including Army Master Sgt. Roy Benavidez and Army Spec. 4 Alfred Rascon—and two Jewish men–Army Col. Jack Jacobs and USAF Sgt. John Levitow—received the MOH. Lanning notes that newly presented information and records could mean that those numbers will increase.

These are good books filled with well-presented and informative stories.

–Tom Werzyn

Blaze of Light by Marcus Brotherton

Every American should know the life story of former Green Beret—and Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient—Gary Beikirch. It’s an admirable life filled with honor, valor, service, and humility. And with severe physical and mental pain and anguish.

Gary Beikirch was born and raised in Rochester, New York. He struggled through a rocky childhood after his father deserted the family when he was in first grade. When he was twenty, Beikirch dropped out of college and joined the Army in August 1967. He volunteered for Special Forces, made it through the physically, emotionally, and intellectually vigorous SF training, and opted to become a medic.

Gary Beikirch arrived in Vietnam in July 1969. He wound up serving with a 5th Special Forces Group A Team in a remote Montagnard village called Dak Seang about a mile from the Laotian border in the jungles of the Central Highlands.

Beikirch found his calling tending to the medical needs of Montagnard men, women, and children. Like other Special Forces medics, he treated a myriad of health conditions, from pulling teeth to delivering babies, treating tropical diseases, and removing shrapnel wounds. He bonded with—and came to love—the Montagnard people, especially a 15-year-old boy named Deo, who more or less became his bodyguard.

On April 1, 1970, an NVA force numbering in the thousands launched a surprise human-wave attack on the camp. Caught off guard, the Green Berets and Montagnard fighters (and their families), suffered huge casualties. Beikirch and the other Green Berets sprang into action, defending the camp. Not long after the battle began, as he ran into the teeth of the assault to rescue a wounded Green Beret, a shrapnel burst knocked him unconscious. When he came to, Beikirch couldn’t walk—the metal had lodged near his spinal cord.

He shook off the injury and ordered Deo to carry him back to the perimeter to continue fighting the enemy and treat the wounded. Somehow—without the use of his legs—he helped rescue wounded Americans and Montagnards and treat them in the medic shed. During that time he was shot a second time, in the side. Again, the young Green Beret was treated and Deo took him back to the fighting. Beikirch took another bullet, this time in the stomach, but he refused entreaties to get back under cover. He continued to fight, even with Deo and two other men carrying him on a litter.

Then NVA rockets started falling. Deo jumped on top of Beikirch during a barrage and paid for that selfless act with his life. Somehow, Beikirch continued to fight until he collapsed and was medevaced out. The fighting would go on for nearly a month.

Next came months operations in hospitals in Vietnam and back in the U.S.A. He had to learn to walk again. When he recovered, Beikirch asked to be sent back to Vietnam. Instead, he spent his remaining time in the Army at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. When he took his honorable discharge, Gary Beikirch enrolled in college again. That’s when life got really rough.

“The war injured me physically,” he said in a TV interview in 2019, “but it was my homecoming that destroyed me.”

Being all but shunned and scorned by antiwar college students, he dropped out and for the next few years fought what seemed a losing battle with severe PTSD. He tried self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. He tried turning to the Bible. To little avail. Beikirch wound up living in a cave in the White Mountains of New Hampshire for nearly two years trying to come to terms with the carnage he’d experienced in Vietnam and survivor guilt—even after receiving the Medal of Honor in 1973 in a ceremony at the White House.

When Beikirch met his future wife Lolly in 1975, his life began to turn around. Her love and attention (and their embrace of Christianity) eased much of the psychic burdens he wrestled with. He graduated from White Mountain Seminary in New Hampshire, and two years later earned a BA in Psychology and Sociology from the University of New Hampshire. In 1981, he received an MS in Education Counseling specializing in adolescent psychology, trauma, and PTSD, from the State University of New York at Brockport.

Gary and Lolly Beikirch in 2019

But during those years there were setbacks and backsliding. Soon after Vietnam Veterans of America was founded in 1978, Gary Beikirch joined the fledgling organization and became one of VVA’s early leaders. He helped form Chapter 20 in his hometown of Rochester, and served as its first president from 1981-84. He was elected the first president of VVA’s New York State Council in 1982, and served in that position till 1984, and also did a 1983-85 term on the VVA National Board of Directors.

In 1981, Gary Beikirch—who was running Rochester’s pioneering Veterans Outreach Center and serving as a team counselor there—joined a small group of VVA leaders including then-president Bobby Muller that made a controversial trip to Vietnam to work on POW/MIA and other issues with the former enemy.

In the summer of 1988 Beikirch began working full time as a school counselor at Greece Arcadia Middle School in his hometown. That’s when he overcame the worst of his PTSD and became a loving husband and father—and a caring mentor to countless young teenagers. He spent nearly 25 years at that job. Since his retirement in 2013 Biekirch has traveled the country speaking to students, church groups, veterans, and others about overcoming adversity through faith and what he has called “finding love and being able to experience it” and “loving others more than myself.”

Marcus Brotherton, who specializes in writing inspirational books about military men, worked closely with Gary Beikirch to put together Blaze of Light: The Inspiring True Story of Green Beret Medic Gary Biekirch, Medal of Honor Recipient (Waterbrook, 261 pp. $26). Brotherton uses much reconstructed dialogue to tell Beikirch’s story in a style that calls to mind books aimed at young-adult readers. He stresses positives, but Brotherton does not shy away from describing the many low points in Beikirch’s life.

There is a strong emphasis on religion, which is fitting giving how important becoming a Christian had in bringing Beikirch out from the depths of emotional despair.

Brotherton mentions Vietnam Veterans of America only once in Blaze of Light, in the final chapter. He provides no information about the nation’s only congressionally chartered veterans service organization that concentrates on working for Vietnam War veterans and their families—other than writing that we are “a group.”

There’s not a word in the book about Gary Beikirch’s important role in VVA’s early years on the local, state, and national levels.

–Marc Leepson

Receiving the Medal of Honor at the White House in 1973

Legend by Eric Blehm

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Eric Blehm’s Legend: A Harrowing Story from the Vietnam War of One Green Beret’s Heroic Mission To Rescue a Special Forces Team Caught Behind Enemy Lines,  a well-received account of Army Master Sgt. Roy P. Benavidez’s life, is now out in paperback (Crown, 288 pp., $16).

On February 24, 1981, President Ronald Reagan presented the Medal of Honor to Benavidez for his extraordinary courage under fire in dense jungle during a clandestine May 2, 1968, mission in Cambodia. Benavidez, on his second Vietnam War tour of duty, was honored for what he did after a twelve-man 5th Special Forces recon team found itself penned in by hundreds of NVA troops.

As we noted in our review in the print edition of The VVA Veteran, the heart of the book is Blehm’s fine account of the battle action. He fleshes out the narrative with a short sketch of Roy Benavidez’s life before he joined the Army, and weaves in a solid accounting of Vietnam War historical background. The result is a readable, meaty narrative that tells the complete story of one of the most notable Medal of Honor recipients of the Vietnam War.

—Marc Leepson