Roy P. Benavidez was born in Lindenau near Cuero, Texas in DeWitt County. He was the son of a Mexican father and a Yaqui Indian mother. When he was two years old, his father died of tuberculosis and his mother remarried. Five years later, his mother died from tuberculosis too.
Benavidez and his younger brother, Roger moved to El Campo, where their grandfather, uncle and aunt raised them along with eight cousins. Benavidez shined shoes at the local bus station, labored on farms in Texas and Colorado, and worked at a tire shop in El Campo. He attended school sporadically, and at the age 15 he dropped out to work full-time to help support the family.
In 1952, during the Korean War, Benavidez enlisted in the Texas Army National Guard. In June 1955, he enlisted in the regular
United States Army. He married Hilaria Coy in 1959, the year he completed his airborne training and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg. In 1965 he was sent to South Vietnam as an advisor to an ARVN infantry regiment.
He stepped on a land mine during a patrol and was evacuated to the United States, where doctors at Fort Sam Houston concluded he would never walk again and began preparing his medical discharge papers.
As Benavidez noted in his 1981 Medal of Honor acceptance speech, stung by the diagnosis, as well as flag burnings and media
criticism of the US military presence in Vietnam he saw on TV, he began an unsanctioned nightly training ritual in an attempt
to redevelop his ability to walk.
Getting out of bed at night (against doctors orders), Benavidez would crawl using his elbows and chin to a wall near his bedside and (with the encouragement of his fellow patients, many of whom were permanently paralyzed and/or missing limbs), he would prop himself against the wall and attempt to lift himself unaided, starting by wiggling his toes, then his feet, and then eventually (after several months of excruciating practice that by his own admission often left him in tears) pushing himself
up the wall with his ankles and legs.
After over a year of hospitalization, Benavidez walked out of the hospital in July 1966, with his wife at his side, determined to return to combat in Vietnam. Benavidez returned to Fort Bragg to begin training for the elite Studies and Observations Group (SOG). Despite continuing pain from his wounds he became a member of the 5th Special Forces Group and returned to South Vietnam in January 1968.
On May 2, 1968, a 12-man Special Forces team was surrounded by a North Vietnam Army battalion. Benavidez heard the radio appeal for help and boarded a helicopter to respond. Armed only with a knife, he jumped from the helicopter carrying a medical bag and rushed to join the trapped team. Benavidez “distinguished himself by a series of daring and extremely glorious actions… and
because of his gallant choice to join voluntarily his comrades who were in critical straits, to expose himself constantly to
withering enemy fire, and his refusal to be stopped despite numerous severe wounds, saved the lives of at least eight men.”
He was believed dead after finally being evacuated and was being zipped up in a body bag when he mustered the last of his strength and spit in the face of a medic, thereby alerting nearby medical personnel that he was still alive.
Nearly dead from a total of 37 separate bayonet, bullet and shrapnel wounds received on multiple occasions over the course of the six-hour fight between the 13 men and an enemy battalion, Benavidez was evacuated once again to Brooke Army Medical Center, where he eventually recovered. For his heroism, the Army awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross.
In 1973, after more detailed accounts became available, Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel Ralph R. Drake insisted that Benavidez receive the Medal of Honor. By then, however, the time limit on the medal had expired. An appeal to Congress resulted in an exemption for Benavidez, but the Army Decorations Board still denied him the Medal of Honor. The board required an eyewitness account from someone present during the action, but Benavidez thought that no others were alive who had been at the “Six Hours in Hell.”
In 1980, however, Brian O’Connor, a radioman in the attacked Special Forces team, provided a ten-page report of the engagement.
O’Connor had been severely wounded (Benavidez had believed him dead), and was evacuated to the United States before his superiors could fully debrief him.
O’Connor learned that Benavidez was alive by chance. He had been living in the Fiji Islands and was on holiday in Australia when he read a newspaper account of Benavidez from an El Campo newspaper. It had been picked up by the international press and reprinted in Australia.
O’Connor soon contacted his old friend and submitted his report, confirming the accounts already provided by others and providing the missing eyewitness.
On February 24, 1981, President Ronald Reagan presented Roy P. Benavidez the Medal of Honor. Reagan reportedly turned to the
press and said: “If the story of his heroism were a movie script, you would not believe it”. He then read the official award citation.