At the age of seven, Alfred V. Rascon was so enthralled by the idea of becoming a paratrooper that he made his own parachute, jumped off the roof of his house, landed on his head, and broke his wrist. Luckily, this early but inauspicious start to his career was not a predictor of his later success with the Airborne in Vietnam: he would go on to be awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in combat in 1966.
The child of Mexican immigrants, Rascon was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, and grew up outside of Los Angeles, California, in an area of town that was home to bars frequented by members of the military. He received their hand-me-down gear—helmets and leather jackets—and from this exposure grew an interest in the military. Upon his high school graduation, with no money for college, the path forward was clear: he made up his mind to join the Army.
Sent first to basic medical training to become a medical corpsman, and then to jump school, he received orders to join the 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) in late 1963, and dispatched to Vietnam in May 1965 at the tender age of 19. Sent out on a combat mission days after his arrival in country, he realized the import of serving as a medic for a combat unit, and how drastically his life was about to change:
“All of a sudden, you’ve got to live by your wits… you’re about to see people that were going to get dismembered, disemboweled, and people that were about to die in your arms. And you did not have the choice to come back and say I don’t want to take care of him. You had to.”
In March 1966, during Operation Silver City in the Long Khanh Province of South Vietnam, Rascon took part in a fire fight that he describes vividly in his oral history interview:
“The earth was about to break up. I mean, it was total chaos. I had been in fire fights before, and you know, some serious ones. But this was so intense, there were literally trees, branches falling. You could hear them—North Vietnamese yelling. You could hear us yelling… also you could smell the cordite from the… explosions of the hand grenades going off, and also the smell of the gunpowder from our weapons. And the thing was really hitting the fan.”
During the battle, Rascon repeatedly ignored his own safety to treat injured comrades, provide them with ammo, and recover a machine gun. In two separate instances, he covered the wounded bodies of his friends with his own, protecting them from incoming grenade fire and absorbing the blasts himself. By the end of the battle, he had sustained a bullet to the hip and intense shrapnel wounds to his face, but continued to treat the wounded until the moment he was put on an evacuation helicopter. Though he was so badly injured as to be given last rites, his main concern was for the cosmetic injuries to his face, and, as he puts it, the potential loss of his good looks.
For the incredible courage and valor he displayed during Operation Silver City, Rascon was nominated for the Medal of Honor, but the official paperwork fell through the cracks, and he did not wind up receiving the Medal until 2000, when it was bestowed upon him by President Clinton. On the meaning of the Medal of Honor, he emphasizes the responsibility that comes with receiving it:
“It’s a gift that I carry for all of us… you put this around your neck, and for the rest of your life, this is what you have to carry. But you have to carry it for yourself and others. And you represent what America is about. And it’s a humbling experience and it’s something I don’t take lightly.”