37 Bullets

Veteran: Master Sergeant Raul "Roy" Perez Benavidez
Artist: Michael Koulermos
Writer: Steve Fechtor

As Americans, we are mostly unfamiliar with war. We live it at arm's length, experiencing war through books and movies, through political speeches and the 6 o'clock news, through online updates, water-cooler conversations, gatherings around dinner tables - through everything, it seems, but actually being there. 

Some of us are touched by war through the loss of a friend or loved one, or the welcoming home a survivor. But even that is at arm's length. Because with war, we never know the guts of it, the stench of it, the sights and sounds and terrors of it, unless we're in it. We can only presume to understand. 

But even for those of us who have been there and who have a special understanding of war, it is hard to understand how Master Sergeant Raul "Roy" Perez Benavidez survived May 2, 1968. 

On that day, Roy was attending a prayer service in a Green Beret outpost at Loc Ninh near the Cambodian border, when he heard panicked voices calling for help from a communications radio. A 12-man patrol had stumbled upon - and was surrounded by - an entire battalion of the Vietnam People's Army. There were about a thousand of them.

Roy rushed to a helicopter with only a knife and his medical bag. He left his gun behind.  

From the air, he spotted the team in a tight circle, surrounded by the enemy some 25 yards away. The chopper tried to land, but enemy fired prevented it, so they moved about 75 yards away.

Roy jumped out and made his way toward the men. He was hit by enemy fire in his right leg. He stumbled and fell, but then got up and kept running until a grenade blast peppered his face with shrapnel.

Incredibly, stood again and staggered toward the circle of men. Four were dead, so Roy took their ammo and distributed it among the others. Then, despite the onslaught of enemy fire, he bound the wounds and injected morphine into those who were screaming in pain.

Roy had picked up his radio and was directing air strikes at the enemy when a second bullet hit him in the right thigh. As he dragged the dead and wounded, a third bullet hit him in the stomach and a grenade blasted him from behind.

Roy was hit several more times, all the while managing to direct air strikes. He passed out. He came to. He suffered from shock and loss of blood. And then, while helping a fellow soldier onto the helicopter, an NVA rose up, clubbed Roy in the head, and bayonetted him through the left arm and hand.

Finally on the helicopter and en route back to base, Roy passed out. When he woke up, he was in an open body bag in the Medevac Hospital hearing a doctor pronounce him dead.

But Master Sergeant Raul "Roy" Perez Benavidez wasn't dead. He was alive. Unbelievably, incredibly, astonishingly - alive. 

They wanted to give him a Congressional Medal of Honor, but they weren't sure he'd survive long enough to get it - so they settled on a Distinguished Service Cross.

Then finally, on February 24, 1981, President Ronald Reagan presented Roy P. Benavidez with the Medal of Honor. At the time, Reagan turned to the press and said, "If the story of his heroism were a movie script, you would not believe it."

And no matter what your knowledge of war - whether you've experienced it at arm's length or have been in the thick of it - the story of Roy's heroism, and his dedication to country and his fellow soldiers, is truly unbelievable.