Vietnam War medic who saved 60 on secret mission receives Medal of Honor

His secret mission into Laos in 1970 was secret for decades.

ByABC News
October 23, 2017, 6:02 PM

— -- Retired Army Captain Gary Michael "Mike" Rose, 71, received the Medal of Honor Monday for his heroism as a combat medic during a harrowing secret mission into Laos in 1970.

Rose is credited with saving the lives of 60 wounded personnel during four days of intense combat, including those injured when the helicopter that evacuated his team was brought down by enemy fire.

“My job was to focus on the individuals that were hurt,” Rose said at a Pentagon news briefing last Friday. “You don't concern yourself about getting hurt or killed.”

On Sept. 11, 1970, Rose, then 22, and 15 other U.S. Army Green Berets flew from Vietnam into Laos accompanied by 120 Vietnamese fighters known as Montagnards. They were on a secret mission to draw away hundreds of North Vietnamese Army soldiers who had been attacking CIA-controlled airfields deep inside Laos.

The Green Berets belonged to the secret Military Assistance Command Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG) that conducted classified missions in Vietnam and Laos.

Since the U.S. military and CIA’s operations inside neutral Laos were secret, the details of what was officially known as Operation Tailwind would remain classified for decades.

By the time the Green Berets were evacuated by helicopter four days later every one of the Americans had been wounded, along with dozens of the Montagnard fighters.

Rose said neither he nor his fellow Green Berets knew much about their mission beforehand, but in a sign of the intense battle ahead they had been told to pack double the amount of ammunition they would normally bring along.

“We were carrying heavy loads of ammunition: extra machine gun, extra grenades -- God, everything else,” said Rose. “So I knew something was up, “I mean, it doesn't take a genius to figure that out.”

Rose also brought along more medical supplies than usual, which was a good thing because by the time he treated the last of the injured he said, “I was down to shirtsleeves and bandannas.”

The American and Montagnard fighters faced enemy fire soon after landing inside Laos. Rose rushed into enemy fire to treat one of the wounded who lay outside his unit’s defensive perimeter and then carried the soldier on his shoulders back to safety.

For the next four days, Rose continually treated the mounting number of casualties as his unit pushed deeper into the Laotian jungle surrounded by growing numbers of North Vietnamese troops that numbered into the hundreds.

Though he was also severely wounded in the fighting, Rose continued providing medical care to the others in his team.

“We weren't supposed to come out,” said retired Lt. Colonel Eugene McCarley, who led the mission in Laos and accompanied Rose at Friday’s briefing. But on September 14, Marine CH-53 helicopters were sent to evacuate out all of the remaining troops, not just the wounded as had been originally planned.

“The ground fire from the anti-aircraft was just horrendous at that time,” said Rose. “The Marines were taking a pounding there.”

Rose remained behind with the last group of Americans and Montagnards still on the ground to ensure after the wounded were evacuated on the first two evacuation helicopters.

Pinned down by enemy fire and low on ammunition, A-1 fighters flew low-altitude strafing runs and dropped tear gas to prevent the American and Montagnard troops from being overrun.

Rose was one of the last people to board a third helicopter as North Vietnamese troops rushed into the landing area. Aboard the helicopter, he provided life-saving care to one of the helicopter’s gunners who had been shot through the neck by enemy fire amid a hail of enemy bullets.

Moments later, the helicopter crash-landed after its engines were taken out by enemy fire.

At the crash site, Rose helped pull survivors from the burning helicopter and provided medical aid until another helicopter arrived to rescue them.

"To Mike and all of the service members who fought in the battle, you've earned the eternal gratitude of the entire American nation," President Donald Trump said Monday. "You faced down the evils of communism, you defended our flag and you showed the world the unbreakable resolve of the American armed forces."

Soon after the mission, Rose was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but in 1971 received the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for valor. It is possible that his award may have been downgraded as part of an effort to keep secret the U.S. mission in Laos.

Rose and his colleagues were required to maintain their activities in Vietnam and Laos secret until the Pentagon declassified them in 1998. He remained in the Army after the Vietnam War, retiring as an artillery officer in 1987.

“If anybody asked me, I was going to be a mail clerk during the Vietnam War, to keep myself out of trouble,” said Rose. Until last year his wife had never really heard him talk about the mission for which he will receive the Medal of Honor.

Like other Medals of Honor awarded long after combat, Congress passed specific legislation for Rose that waived the requirement that medal can only be awarded five years after the heroic action.

On Monday, Rose was joined by 25 people who participated in Operation Tailwind, including 10 of his fellow Green Berets.

Rose says he hopes his medal will honor the service of Vietnam War veterans.