Finally Honored

Vietnam-era captain campaigns for soldiers' recognition - By Claudia Feldman, Aug. 6, 2009


John B. Poindexter had worked to get the men of Troop A recognized for their heroism in relieving a pinned-down group of soldiers from Company C in Vietnam on March 26, 1970. What some of the other men who were there had to say:

• Troop A Sgt. Bud Smolich, 66, of Rockport, Ill.: “When we moved out, we were short a gunner. I asked the field cook, ‘You know how to run a machine gun?' ‘You bet,' he said. So the field cook was my gunner. … I had a command vehicle, and I could monitor everything going on on the radio. Charlie Company was really hurting, begging for help. One time I heard, ‘If somebody doesn't get here soon, there won't be anybody here to help.' All of us felt the same way. We had to get them out of there.”

• Troop A Sgt. Pasqual Gutierrez, 60, of Walnut, Calif.: “I really can't say enough about the men I was with that day. They possessed what I refer to as the American spirit. They — we — were outnumbered. But we overcame the odds. We executed our mission. … To be honest, if we get to go to the White House, I don't know if I'll be able to contain myself. I can't even describe what that would mean to me.”

• Company C Capt. George Hobson, 66, of Columbia, Mo.: “I got wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade. One moment I was standing there talking to the battalion commander. The next moment I was on the ground on top of the radio operator. Unfortunately, we were kissing close. He was yelling at me, ‘Sir, sir, you're bleeding all over me.' … John's (Poindexter's) efforts to get recognition for his men are an indicator of the quality of man that he is.”

When John B. Poindexter came home from Vietnam in 1970, he did what his girlfriend told him to do. He took off his uniform and packed it away — along with a chestful of medals and a headful of memories.
Then he set his sights on the future. He finished his master's degree and his Ph.D. He made a pile of money on Wall Street. And he started a company in Houston, his hometown.

It would take 33 years and a book called Into Cambodia before the retired captain realized he had unfinished business in the dense jungles of Vietnam. Poindexter was reading the book, which included an account of a daring rescue and ferocious battle that he had led, when he realized that few of his men hadn't received the medals he had requested for them and they had earned.

Poindexter was devastated, whose tour of duty ended shortly after the bloody battle. “I was leveled. I was on the floor.” The year was 2003, and Poindexter immediately filed new paperwork for the men of Troop A, 11th Armored Cavalry. But even then, only 14 new medals were approved. All told, about 20 of 150 members of the deserving crew were recognized.

Dissatisfied, Poindexter began collecting documentation for a Presidential Unit Citation, the nation's highest group award for military valor. It's the equivalent of a Distinguished Service Cross for the entire troop, explains Army spokesman Lt. Col. Mike Moose. It's more prestigious than a Silver Star. And just below the military's highest award, the Medal of Honor.

The unit citation was what Poindexter wanted for his men, but it was going to take all of his organizational and management skills to prove they earned it. He already was busy juggling his diversified manufacturing company here and a luxury resort in West Texas when he took on what amounted to a third full-time job.
He tracked down as many men from Troop A as he could and recorded their remembrances of that unnamed battle. He sought verification from other soldiers and from supervising officers. Also, he dug out an old manuscript — an account he'd written of that long day — then tore it apart, put it back together and published it himself in book form.

Poindexter submitted the application for the presidential citation in 2004. It was 6 inches thick and weighed as much as a supersize dictionary. Then he waited.

‘We had audacity'

Poindexter is 64 years old, 6 feet 3½ inches tall and lanky. If he looks like he might be comfortable sitting atop a horse in a cowboy hat, he is. If he looks like central casting's idea of a Texas sheriff, he is.

But he was born in Houston, a middle-class kid, a product of the Houston Independent School District. When his family packed up and moved to Arkansas, he moved, too. Back then, he zipped through the University of Arkansas, graduated early, with honors, and headed for New York City.

He was 21, a junior executive for AT&T and attending graduate school at New York University at night when he decided it was time to volunteer for the Army. That was 1966, just as the war in Vietnam was losing support at home.

Public opinion affected Poindexter not at all. He comes from a family with a long tradition of military service, and he thought it was his turn to go. Also, he viewed the wartime duty as a personal challenge. What was he made of? How would he function in a life-or-death situation? The military, he thought, was the place to find out.

Poindexter entered officer candidate school, was commissioned an armor officer, completed Airborne and Ranger training, and finally extended his tour of duty so he could go to Vietnam. “I got lucky,” he says. “I was assigned to the 11th Cavalry Regiment.” The group was known for professionalism and top performance under challenging conditions.

Poindexter, sent to War Zone C, led two different commands. Each time, the instructions were simple: find the enemy, fighters for the highly disciplined North Vietnamese Army, and attempt to obliterate them. “The conditions were miserable,” Poindexter says. “We were camping along the Cambodian border in very thick jungle. It was hot all the time, 95 to 100 degrees or worse, and it rained every day.”

The men wore combat boots, trousers and armored jackets. They didn't bother with shirts. It was just too hot. And they subsisted on C-rations, which meant unending canned food. “Mighty untasty,” Poindexter recalls.“I weigh 170 now, and I'm thin. I was about 155 then.”

He thinks his men should be recognized for their valor during a risky rescue mission and gunbattle that occurred March 26, 1970. The day began uneventfully, though the crew was still exhausted from a seemingly random accident with an exploding mortar tube the night before.

Three men died and a dozen were wounded in the explosion. The next morning, Poindexter assigned his troops relatively light duties. Then, about 11:30, he called them in. Via radio, they'd been following a battle going on about four kilometers to the north and right on the border.

Company C, 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry, had done what it was supposed to do — search and destroy. But its troops soon found themselves not only outnumbered but surrounded in a vast enemy encampment. The men of A Troop understood the situation. Without help, 100 infantrymen from Company C were going to be captured or killed. They were on the ground, in the mud, ready to fight to the death. But it didn't come to that because in the late afternoon Troop A arrived with 25 tanks and supplies.

One option that Poindexter briefly considered was to drive onto the battlefield, rescue the comrades and retreat. “We didn't do that,” Poindexter says. “That's not what the 11th Cavalry does.” Instead, they moved between Company C and the North Vietnamese and fought the enemy until it was too dark to see. “We were outnumbered 2- to 3-to-1,” Poindexter says. “I knew if we got trapped at night, we'd only have more deaths.”

Finally, the armored tanks left just as they had come, with the Americans fully expecting a North Vietnamese ambush on the way back to camp. That didn't happen.

“The day's events had been momentous for both sides,” Poindexter says. “I think the North Vietnamese were as shocked as we were.” The Americans were stunned by the magnitude of the bunker complex. And, Poindexter says, the North Vietnamese must have been surprised by the rescue effort. They had dozens of American soldiers within their grasp, only to have them snatched away during a surprise attack. “We had audacity,” Poindexter says with some satisfaction. “Audacity and willpower.”

Hopeful signs

The staffs of two presidents, George W. Bush, then Barack Obama, worked together to process the unit citation. It was dated April 15, 2009, and it was sent to Troop A, 11th Armored Cavalry, based in Fort Irwin, Calif. That's the way a unit award is handled, Poindexter says. Even if it is given for courage and bravery exhibited years ago, the certificate goes to the current members. That's as it should be, he says.

Of course, Poindexter didn't get to be the sole owner and CEO of a multimillion-dollar company bearing his name by thinking modestly. Nor did he launch a luxury resort, Cibolo Creek Ranch, in the wilds of West Texas by thinking small. Nor did he offer to buy a chunk of Big Bend Ranch State Park four years ago because he was afraid to say what he wanted. No.

President Obama presented the award at a White House ceremony on November 11, 2010. He witnessed his old crew sitting in the audience and watching. He promised that if his men, scattered around the country, couldn't afford the airfare to Washington, he would pick up the tab.

The thing is, Poindexter says, the award is not just for Troop A but for all Vietnam vets. Their war was an unpopular war. Their war was a losing war. But those facts have no bearing on the courage of those who served, he says. “I don't recall a political conversation the whole time I was in Vietnam,” Poindexter says. “It was about duty to country.”

Source: By CLAUDIA FELDMAN Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle

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