By Senior Staff Writer Gina Harkins and Senior Editor Laural Hobbes
Retired Army Capt. Gary “Mike” Rose received the nation's highest valor award in October, nearly five decades after his actions during a top-secret mission saved his wounded comrades.
President Donald Trump presented Rose, a MOAA Life Member and Huntsville, Al. chapter member, with the Medal of Honor during an Oct. 23 ceremony at the White House. Rose, a prior-enlisted soldier who served as a Special Forces medic, risked his life several times during an intense four-day battle to treat the injured, despite being wounded himself.
Then-Sgt. Rose was deployed to Vietnam with the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) when on Sept. 11, 1970, his team was sent west across the border into Laos, according to an Army news release. The company-sized force, which included American troops and indigenous Montagnard fighters from Vietnam, was on a covert mission called Operation Tailwind.
They flew about 40 miles into enemy-con-trolled territory near Chavane in southeast Laos and began taking fire almost immediately.
Rose and his team spent four days fighting off a growing number of North Vietnamese soldiers. In 1971, he received theDistinguished Service Cross, the Army's second-highest valor award, for his actions during the mission. Supporters spent years fighting to have that award upgraded to the Medal of Honor. In 2016, Congress finally passed a measure that made it a reality.
It was a hazardous operation, says Maj. John Plaster, USA (Ret), a former Green Beret who led a reconnaissance mission northeast of Rose's team.
“It was like whacking a hornet's nest to see how many flew out,” Plaster says. “They were dependent entirely upon air support - and if the weather turned bad, they would have no support at all.
“Yet not one Green Beret hesitated to go on the operation,” he adds. “That's a level of dedication few people would understand.”
Rose was the second Vietnam veteran to stand in the White House's East Room this year to receive the Medal of Honor.
Once on the ground in Laos, Rose and his team soon faced off against an enemy squad.
“We started taking ground fire from the moment we hit the ground, and it didn't let up until we were extracted on the fourth day,” Rose told Military Officer. Two Americans and two Montagnards were hit, and one of them was trapped outside the company's defensive perimeter. Rose rushed into the fray, disregarding his own safety to treat the man.
The enemy withdrew as Rose's team forged ahead. When more gunfire broke out, the medic again rushed forward to treat the increasing number of wounded. Crawling from position to position, Rose offered words of encouragement while still directing fire. It was his job, he said, to keep the men alive and out of shock.
First, “you want to make sure they're breathing,” Rose says. “Then you want to make sure that you stop the flow of blood. … Shock is your biggest concern [after] you stabilize the first two, because they may think their injury is a lot worse than it is. And even if it is, you don't want them to know that.”
The next day, a company of North Vietnamese soldiers ambushed Rose's team. A Montagnard fighter was hit about 40 yards from the company's position. Rose ran, crawled, and maneuvered his way to the man, shielding him with his own body as he rendered lifesaving medical treatment, the news release states.
Rose then dragged the wounded man back to their defensive position with one hand while firing his weapon at the enemy with the other. Then a rocket-propelled grenade landed nearby, spraying Rose with shrapnel that hit his back and leg and blew a hole through his foot. It didn't stop him.
Rose picked up a stick, which he used as a crutch for the remainder of the firefight. He ignored his own wounds while tending to others.
As the fight dragged on, Rose's company requested medical evacuations for the wounded. The first helicopter approached but was unable to land, due to incoming fire. Rose stood, despite the danger, and attempted to pass the wounded up to the hovering aircraft's crew. The pilot had to abort the mission as gunfire ripped through the aircraft. The severely damaged helicopter took off, only to crash a few miles away.
Plaster was flying in a Cessna L-19/O-1 Bird Dog to “get the lay of the land” when he saw a downed helicopter. It was clear that the enemy had anti-aircraft weapons, which wasn't a good sign.
“My pilot and I thought Mike and his company were in great danger,” Plaster said. “They might not get out of there.”
Rose's company eventually was able to break out of their defensive position. With more than half the company wounded at that point, Rose dug trenches where he could treat the men - while still ignoring his own injuries.
“Rose never took time to eat, rest, or care for his own wounds,” the release states.
On the final night of the mission, North Vietnamese soldiers surrounded the team. Rose braved rockets, grenades, and mortars in order to continue treating the wounded.
By the next day, the team got word more than 500 North Vietnamese soldiers were headed toward their position. Finally, the company was told to head to an extraction point as the Air Force provided close-air support. They reached the landing zone but still were surrounded. The enemy fire intensified, and more of Rose's men were hit. Rose braved the assault to reach the wounded and bring back the bodies of the fallen.
“In great pain, Rose continued to retrieve and medically treat soldier after soldier, under the withering enemy fire with no regard to his own safety,” the release states.
Rose hobbled toward the final extraction helicopter, with enemy soldiers closing in just 50 feet from the aircraft. Just after liftoff, the helicopter was hit with an anti-aircraft round. At 4,500 feet up, Rose heard the engine stop.
'If you were going to die, you'd already be dead.'
Rose was sitting on the tailgate when the rotors stopped. The helicopter got quiet.
“And when it goes quiet, you know you're in trouble,” Rose says.
As the aircraft hung in the air, the crew noticed a Marine gunner near the door had been shot through the neck. Rose rushed to his aid, rendering lifesaving medical treatment as the helicopter plummeted back toward the ground.
The Marine pulled through that day. Undoubtedly, Rose's efforts to ensure the wounded man didn't go into shock helped. His tactic?
“If you can get someone angry at you ... they will come out of shock,” Rose says. “So I reached down, and - pardon the language - I spoke into his ear and said, 'Listen, you son of a bitch. If you were going to die, you'd already be dead.' ”
The bird hit several miles from the team's original extraction point. Rose was thrown from the aircraft before the point of impact, according to the release. Several troops were injured and knocked out in the crash. The helicopter was leaking fuel and smoking.
“Still dazed and wounded from the crash, Rose crawled back into the downed helicopter to pull his wounded and unconscious teammates from the wreckage, knowing it could explode at any moment,” the release states. “Rose continued to … [treat] the injured personnel until another helicopter arrived on the scene.”
Wounded and covered in blood, Rose refused treatment until the others were tended to. The medic is credited with treating between 60 and 70 people during the relentless four-day battle; three men died.
Today Rose, 69, lives in Huntsville, Ala., with his wife, Margaret. The couple married in 1971 and have two daughters, Sarah and Claire, and one son, Michael. They also have two grandchildren.
Rose went on to become an artillery officer, after he was selected to attend Officer Candidate School in 1973, and he later served in Germany and Korea. He completed his bachelor's degree in general education and military science from Cameron University, Lawton, Okla., and his master's in communication from the University of Oklahoma.
When future generations read Rose's citation, he hopes they understand something vital: “You can succeed at what you need to do without being ... a superhero. Regular guys can do a lot of great things.”
Rose says his award is a “collective medal,” dedicated to the others with whom he served. Though Rose is too humble to accept the Medal of Honor for his own courage, Plaster says his fellow soldiers recognize Rose went above and beyond the call of duty.
“He consistently put his comrades first; he thought nothing of the danger he exposed himself to when helping wounded men,” Plaster says. “He was always one of the best.”