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Man Of Valor
Bravery, fortitude, heart, heroism, spirit - all synonyms for the word inscribed on Richard Rocco's Medal of Honor, and all descriptive of the man who has spent decades saving the lives of veterans and youths
By Kate Nelson Tribune Reporter
SAN ANTONIO, Texas - Even in Richard Rocco's cancer-withered hand, the Congressional Medal of Honor weighs no more than a silver dollar. But the medal's magnitude among the valiant few who have received it surpasses the simple measure of grams, ounces and pounds.
Above a gold star, a bald eagle holds a bar bearing one word: "Valor."
Together, that word and that medal represent our nation's highest military honor. They stand for the super-human heroics that every veteran reveres. They contain the memories that no veteran desires.
For 28 years, Rocco, a poor kid from the South Valley, has opened the medal's navy blue case. For 28 years, he has tied a sky-blue ribbon around his neck. For 28 years, he has turned a violent memory of Vietnam into a mighty lever, a formidable honor, an endless duty.
Barring a miracle, there will not be a 29th year.
After saving three men from a burning helicopter and countless more from their coming-home miseries, Rocco faces his most brazen foe.
"It's scary," he says of the cancer that infects his lungs and spine.
His voice is a whisper, wrenched slowly, reluctantly, from a body hunched in pain.
"I was always hoping that the medal would open doors for Vietnam vets," he says. "There were a lot of programs that needed to be done. Drug and alcohol treatment. Employment. Housing."
The only living New Mexican to receive the medal for Vietnam service was among the first to see the need. He was among the first to answer the call. In it, he found a purpose for his anger at a war that history has shown had little purpose at all.
Presidents, generals, CEOs and junkies have hailed Rocco's heroism, his compassion, his unfailing desire to reach out and help.
At 63, he has come full circle. He has dragged himself through America's longest war and carried veterans through its awful aftermath.
Now, nearing his own end, Louis Richard Rocco has finally found peace.
* * * He was just another kid in the barrio. His roots bore no hint of the heroism to come. "I remember Albuquerque as being a time in my life when everything was simple," Rocco says. "We were poor. Real poor. My father was mostly unemployed. My mother was very, very strong."
The oldest son in an Italian-Hispanic family, he stole potatoes and corn from neighbors' fields to feed his parents and eight siblings.
When he was about 10, the family began a back-and-forth regime, Beverly Hillbillies-style. A few years here in the barrios of Albuquerque. A few years there in a subsidized housing project of San Fernando, Calif.
On one trip, the owner of a diner refused to serve the family when he got a look at Richard's darker-skinned brothers. One thing led to another, and the father and the owner brawled. Young Richard stood between them, "just trying to stop it."
His peacemaking stint was short-lived.
By 13, he was blowing it. Getting into fights, getting kicked out of school and getting into trouble.
"I spent most of my teen-age years in jail," he says. "At 16, they were getting ready to send me up Õtil I was 21."
The charge was armed robbery. The future was a mess.
He had an hour to kill on the streets of Los Angeles before his sentencing. He wandered into an Army recruiting station.
Staring at posters, he heard a voice behind him: "Can I help you?"
Rocco turned to see a man he remembers only as Sgt. Martinez.
"No, you can't help me," Rocco told him. "The Army won't take me. I have a criminal record and I'm only 16."
"Why don't we sit down and talk about it?" the sergeant said.
And so they did.
"That was the first time an adult in my life didn't judge me," Rocco says. "He didn't try to change my mind. He just listened, actively listened.
"And it was the first time that I spilled my guts. All the pain and anger inside me came out."
Martinez offered to talk to the judge. They agreed that Rocco would spend a year in a delinquency home and, at 17, his parents would sign a waiver giving him over to the Army.
It was his last, best chance. It changed everything.
"The Army was what I needed," Rocco says. "I didn't have a structure. I didn't have discipline. I needed that desperately. I needed what the Army had."
A few years later, Rocco was serving as a medic at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, Calif. He looked across the room and saw a familiar face: Sgt. Martinez, lying on a litter and badly wounded.
"I went up and said, `Do you remember me?' " Rocco says. "He didn't. He had taken care of so many kids that he couldn't recognize me.
"I told him, `You're going to walk out of here.' "
He made sure the sergeant got special attention and round-the-clock care.
You could say that was when Rocco saved his first life. Rocco would say he was only returning the favor.
* * * He still remembers the heat of Vietnam. The humidity. The stench. And the danger. "As we pulled in the first time," Rocco says, "they were loading caskets into a plane."
If he remembers much more, he'd rather not say. The hallmark of heroism, after all, is humility. Just doing my job. Doing what anyone would do.
Lee Caubarreaux disagrees.
"Had it not been for him," the Louisiana retiree says of Rocco, "three of us would have burned up in the ship."
May 24, 1970. Rocco is on his second tour as a sergeant first class, a medic on a helicopter evacuation crew. Called to a South Vietnamese camp to rescue the wounded, they headed into enemy fire.
The pilot was hit. The chopper went down, landing on its side. Caubarreaux, the co-pilot, was pinned on the bottom, his shoulder shattered. Flames erupted.
"I looked up," Caubarreaux says. "I could see through the pilot's door. Richard had climbed on top and opened the door. I saw tracers in the sky behind him and thought, `Oh, Lord, if he gets shot, we're all going to die.' "
Rocco didn't get shot. He pulled out the pilot and carried him across 20 meters of open ground to the limited safety of a downed tree.
He returned and helped Caubarreaux clamber out. The gunner was already dead, but they managed to get the other medic before flames could consume him.
Rocco helped carry each man into the jungle and began first aid. Then he passed out.
In the crash, he had broken his hip, fractured his wrist and injured his back. During the rescue, his hands were badly burned.
For two days, the crew huddled in explosive pandemonium. Two helicopters were shot down trying to save them.
"We didn't know each other before then," Caubarreaux says. "We became closer than brothers after that. Because of him, I still have partial use of my arm. I can't screw in a light bulb, but I can hug my wife."
The burned medic wasn't so lucky. He spent a year in the hospital recuperating. The day he was released, he blew his brains out.
In 1974, Rocco stood, trembling, in front of an equally trembling President Gerald R. Ford. Rocco was about to become the only living New Mexican to receive the Medal of Honor for service in Vietnam.
"The president told me it was the first live medal he had placed on any soldier," Rocco says. "I told him that it was the first medal I had ever got."
* * * More than 58,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War. In the eight years after the 1975 fall of Saigon, an estimated 60,000 veterans died from self-destructive behaviors. Suicides. Gunfights with police. Drug overdoses. Car crashes.
"We all experienced some of those problems," Rocco says. "Everybody had depression. Everybody had anger. Everybody had rage. And there was nothing set up for us. No jobs. No housing. Nothing.
"We felt very betrayed."
Juan Jos Pe¤a, an Army veteran and a Spanish translator for federal court, met Rocco in Albuquerque in 1978.
"He was starting to have some meetings in his backyard," Pe¤a recalls. "We'd build a bonfire, pull out the grills. That's when we started discussing establishing an organization for Vietnam veterans in New Mexico."
Rocco, movie-star handsome and a bit older than other vets, became their leader, their role model, their godfather.
In a few years, he had established the Vietnam Veterans of New Mexico. He opened the Vet Center, where he developed a system of vets counseling vets. He became director of the state's Veterans Service Commission.
Always, he harangued politicians and philanthropists to join the cause.
"When a Medal of Honor winner calls a general or a corporate head, those guys jump through the roof just to meet him," says John Garcia, an Army veteran and executive director of the Barelas Community Development Corp.
"Once Richard met them, he would say, `I need some money for Albuquerque vets.' He used the medal, but not to advance his personal life. He did it to advance the life of the vet."
He started a program to counsel the families of veterans. A shelter for homeless vets. One-stop shops for counseling, health care, job advice or a blanket.
He persuaded legislators and then voters to let all veterans into state-run colleges for free. He got funding to start a veterans' nursing home in Truth or Consequences.
His compassion had its limits.
"When people got out of line, he would take them aside and, as we would say, counsel them," Pe¤a says. "Sometimes, it would take a bit of physical counseling.
"Richard's strictly a guy from the barrio, a prototype pachuco. But he also knows the circles of power, so he can get around there or on the streets."
Caubarreaux warned Rocco that he was giving too much of his life to veterans. Two marriages had failed. The crush of working full-time jobs and shepherding programs for vets had worn him down.
"The man has tremendous passion and compassion for his fellow man," Caubarreaux says. "But he spent so little time for himself."
In 1991, during Desert Storm, Rocco went back on active duty at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. When he returned, he was two-stepping at Caravan East when he met Maria Chavez Schneider, assistant director of New Mexico AIDS Services.
They fell in love and soon were married. In 1992, both burned out by work, they followed a dream to Mexico. For six years, they lived it in San Miguel de Allende - gardening, cooking, romping on the beach and letting it go, letting it all go.
* * * "He told me he had won the New Mexico Chile Cook-Off before he ever told me he had won the Medal of Honor," Maria Rocco says. "We'll go to the White House two or three times a year, and he'll talk to the president of the United States the same as the guy who delivered dirt to us in Mexico."
She smiles at her husband's humility, but isn't about to ignore his heroism.
When they moved to San Antonio in 1998, she opened the boxes that Rocco had stashed away. The contents now splay across the walls and shelves of his home office.
Plaque upon plaque. Picture upon picture. Rocco with President Reagan. Rocco with President Clinton. Rocco with Carlos Santana. Rocco with the San Antonio Spurs.
Tacked to the bulletin board is the most recent picture. In it, a clutch of teen-age boys in orange jumpsuits surround a man wearing the Medal of Honor.
The youths, all of them on the verge of bad lives, are part of a boot camp. Rocco visits it once a month to tell them how a stint in the military can reverse bad lives.
So far, he has recruited 70 kids.
He helped start Veterans Against Violence and Drugs, a school-room program that is spreading nationwide.
After three decades of giving his all to veterans, Rocco is giving his all to children.
"The legacy I would like to have left is that these kids would have values of honesty, integrity, patriotism, loyalty and compassion," he says haltingly, his pauses laden with pain. "Their parents apparently aren't instilling those in them, and they're growing up with no thought as to which direction they're going."
Sort of like a long-lost teenage boy standing before the familiar face of Sgt. Martinez.
In January, doctors discovered the pneumonia they had been treating in Rocco was cancer. They gave him six to eight months to live.
Nearly 10 months have passed.
"He's stubborn," Maria says proudly.
He is in his second round of chemotherapy, this time with an aggressive, experimental drug. Part of a lung was removed, and he spent four weeks in a hospital bed, losing 40 pounds of mostly muscle.
He suspects the cancer is linked to Agent Orange - a link that the Veterans' Administration just acknowledged for Vietnam veterans, but only those with pancreatic cancer.
Who knows how many more acknowledgements are to come, Rocco asks, for the ailments of Vietnam vets, Gulf War vets, Somalia vets?
That his death might come belatedly from Vietnam could be the final insult from the country he served, the country he loves. Rocco shrugs.
"There are two ways to look at it," he says. "They used Agent Orange to defoliate the vegetation that was killing us. The North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong would hide behind it, ambush us.
"We couldn't defend ourselves without it. We didn't know that, later on, it would come to plague us."
His three grown children and five grandchildren visit often. His parents have helped him with final arrangements. A funeral in San Antonio, burial at Fort Sam Houston.
The medal will go to his oldest son, Roy Rocco.
Richard Rocco is tired and he is in pain. He stares through a window at the world beyond his reach. He has been all over that world, suffered in that world, recovered in that world, and frolicked in that world.
"It doesn't bother me anymore," he says of what his country demanded and what it later delivered. "I'm at peace. I'm going to die. I don't want to die angry."
Here is the text of the citation that accompanied Louis Richard Rocco's Medal of Honor, awarded to him in 1974:
Warrant Officer Rocco distinguished himself when he volunteered to accompany a medical evacuation team on an urgent mission to evacuate eight critically wounded Army of the Republic of Vietnam personnel. As the helicopter approached the landing zone, it became the target for intense enemy automatic weapons fire.
Disregarding his own safety, WO Rocco identified and placed accurate suppressive fire on the enemy positions as the aircraft descended toward the landing zone. Sustaining major damage from the enemy fire, the aircraft was forced to crash land, causing WO Rocco to sustain a fractured wrist and hip and a severely bruised back.
Ignoring his injuries, he extracted the survivors from the burning wreckage, sustaining burns to his own body.
Despite intense enemy fire, WO Rocco carried each unconscious man across approximately 20 meters of exposed terrain to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam perimeter. On each trip, his severely burned hands and broken wrist caused excruciating pain, but the lives of the unconscious crash survivors were more important than his personal discomfort, and he continued his rescue efforts.
Once inside the friendly position, WO Rocco helped administer first aid to his wounded comrades until his wounds and burns caused him to collapse and lose consciousness.
His bravery under fire and intense devotion to duty were directly responsible for saving three of his fellow soldiers from certain death.
His unparalleled bravery in the face of enemy fire, his complete disregard for his own pain and injuries, and his performance were far above and beyond the call of duty and were in keeping with the highest traditions of self sacrifice and courage of the military service.
© 2002, by Albuquerque Tribune News
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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