ROY PEREZ BENAVIDEZ (1935-1998) Roy Perez Benavidez was born in Cuero, Texas, on August 5, 1935. He was the son of a sharecropper and endured much racism in his life because of his mixed Yaqui Indian and Mexican heritage. Benavidez was orphaned as a child and raised by an uncle. He dropped out of school in the seventh grade. For a period of time in his teens, Benavidez worked as a migrant farm worker and traveled as far as Colorado to harvest sugar beets. Benavidez joined the Army in Houston, Texas, in 1955.
Benavidez was first stationed at Fort Ord, California. He was then transferred to Germany, where he received parachute training. While in Germany, the letters he exchanged with childhood sweetheart Hilaria "Lala" Coy increased in intensity. When Benavidez returned to the U.S., he immediately sent his uncle, grandfather, and the local priest to ask Lala's father for his blessing.
Lala and Roy Benavidez were married on June 7, 1959, in El Campo, Texas. Benavidez was then assigned to Military Police training at Fort Gordon, Georgia. Throughout his training, Benavidez periodically got into trouble because of his stubbornness and hot temper. However, Benavidez later credited these qualities for his success in Special Forces training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. By the time Benavidez was ordered to Vietnam, he had risen to the rank of Staff Sergeant with the Fifth Special Forces Group, Airborne, Detachment B-56, First Special Forces.
On the morning of May 2, 1968, a 12-man Special Forces team was inserted in Cambodia to observe large scale North Vietnamese troop movements and was discovered by the enemy. Most of the team members were close friends of Benavidez, who was at the Forward Operating Base in Loc Ninh, Vietnam. Three helicopters were sent to rescue the team, but were unable to land due to heavy enemy fire. When a second attempt was made to reach the stranded team, Benavidez jumped aboard one of the helicopters, armed only with a Bowie knife. As the helicopters reached the landing zone, Benavidez realized that the team members were likely too severely wounded to move to the helicopters. Benavidez ran through heavy small arms fire to the wounded soldiers, and was wounded himself in the right leg, face, and head in the process. He reorganized the team and signaled the helicopters to prepare for extraction. Despite his injuries, Benavidez carried or dragged half of the wounded men to the helicopters. He then collected the classified documents held by the now dead team leader. As he completed this task he was wounded by an exploding grenade in the back and shot in the stomach. At that moment, the waiting helicopter's pilot was mortally wounded and the helicopter crashed.
Benavidez rushed to collect the stunned crash survivors to form a defensive perimeter. He directed air support, ordered another extraction attempt, and was wounded again when shot in the thigh. At this point, Benavidez was losing so much blood from his face wounds that his vision became blocked. Another helicopter landed, and as Benavidez carried a wounded friend to it he was clubbed in the head with a rifle butt by an enemy soldier. The enemy soldier attempted to bayonet Benavidez while he was on the ground, but Benavidez grabbed the bayonet and pulled it toward him. This took the enemy soldier by surprise and enabled Benavidez to kill him, but also slashed Benavidez's right hand and embedded the bayonet in his left arm. Benavidez was loaded onto the helicopter and taken back to base. There, the triage doctor declared him dead, but Benavidez spit at the doctor's face as he zipped the body bag, and was taken into the hospital. He spent almost a year in hospitals recovering from his injuries.
Benavidez's commanding officers felt that he deserved the Congressional Medal of Honor, but recommended him for a Distinguished Service Cross because they thought Benavidez would die before the lengthy application process for the Medal of Honor would award him his medal. He was presented with the Distinguished Service Cross for saving the lives of eight soldiers at extreme risk to his own safety by General William C. Westmoreland at the Fort Sam Houston Hospital in San Antonio, Texas. Years later, one of Benavidez's former commanders found out that he had survived his injuries and began the process to award him the Congressional Medal of Honor. However, the eyewitnesses and paperwork necessary to upgrade the Distinguished Service Cross to a Medal of Honor were difficult to locate in the massive bureaucracy of the Army.
Benavidez himself became very active in upgrading his award and enlisted the help of Texas congressmen J.J. Pickle and O.C. Fisher as well as several dedicated veterans to locate helicopter pilots and door gunners who may have witnessed the extraction. Benavidez was finally awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Ronald Reagan on February 24, 1981, in the courtyard of the Pentagon.
Benavidez had reached the rank of Master Sergeant by the time of his retirement from the Army. He settled down in El Campo to raise his three children; Noel, Yvette, and Denise. In 1983 he went to Washington D.C. again to protest the cut off of disability payments to him by the Social Security Administration. Benavidez often spoke at military bases, schools, and even runaway shelters on the importance of education.
He died on November 29, 1998, and was buried at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio; his funeral was attended by roughly 1,500 people. An elementary school in Houston and a boot camp for problem youths in Uvalde are both named in his honor. In 1999, the Army built the Master Sergeant Roy P. Benavidez Special Operations Logistics Complex at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
In 2003, the USNS Benavidez, a supply ship, was christened as part of the Navy's Military Sealift Command. In 2001, the Hasbro toy company released the Roy P. Benavidez G.I. Joe action figure, the first G.I. Joe to portray someone of Hispanic heritage.
Bibliography: "Above and Beyond: The Medal of Honor in Texas," Capitol Visitors Center, State Preservation Board of Texas. Benavidez, Roy P. and Oscar Griffin, The Three Wars of Roy Benavidez, Corona Publishing Company, San Antonio, 1986. "Medal of Honor Recipient Master Sergeant Roy Benavidez," Psywarrior.com, http://www.psywarrior.com/benavidez.html, April 26, 2006. "USNS Benavidez returns to Corpus Christi," Military Sealift Command, http://www.msc.navy.mil/N00p/pressrel/press05/press19.htm, June 14, 2006.