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Who was Roy Benavidez, the man whose name some say should replace Confederate general’s at Fort Hood?

Medal of Honor awardee Master Sgt. Roy Benavidez. (U.S. Army/Released)

Texas native Roy Benavidez, a member of the elite Green Berets who earned the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War, had a storied military career that included five Purple Hearts and an astonishing rescue of eight soldiers that reads like a Hollywood movie script, a U.S. president would later say.

That’s why for years members of the League of United Latin American Citizens have been pushing to have Fort Hood renamed in his honor.

The people of Texas and the nation should know the story of Benavidez, Domingo Garcia, national president of the civil rights group, said Tuesday.

“He is largely unknown beyond the Spanish community,’’ he said.

U.S. Army and Pentagon officials indicated Monday they were open to the idea of removing the names of Confederate military commanders at Army posts, including Fort Hood — an idea long supported by LULAC and other civil rights advocates.

The announcement came after two weeks of demonstrations against police brutality. Spurred by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis after a white police officer pressed a knee on his neck for more than eight minutes, the protests have demanded changes in police departments as well as a broader push to address racism in other aspects of life.

“The Secretary of Defense and Secretary of the Army are open to a bi-partisan discussion on the topic,” Lt. Col. Emanuel L. Ortiz, an Army spokesman, said Monday.

Fort Hood officials did not immediately return requests for comment.

‘Real American Rambo’

Fort Hood is named for John Bell Hood, a Confederate general and West Point graduate. When Kentucky, where Hood was born, declared itself neutral during the Civil War, Hood chose to go to Texas, where he took command of the Texas Brigade during the war. He had a reputation as aggressive to the point of reckless, according to historians, and he suffered several major defeats.

Garcia offers a blunt assessment.

“Gen. Hood was a traitor, one of the worst generals in the Civil War,” Garcia said. “That was a shameful episode in American history in terms of the Confederacy and what it stood for,” he said.

“And to have troops of all ethnic backgrounds training there is not an example of what America should be,” he said. “A military base needs to be reflective of all America.”

At its 2019 convention in Milwaukee, LULAC unanimously passed a resolution to honor Benavidez by renaming Fort Hood after him.

“He was the real American Rambo — not a fictional character, but a real soldier who saved countless lives at a great cost to his body and person,” Garcia said.

Benavidez was born in 1935 near Cuero, Texas, southeast of San Antonio. After enlisting in 1952, he was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, and was eventually accepted into the Army’s Special Forces, known as the Green Berets.

He was so badly wounded during his first tour of duty in Vietnam in 1965 that doctors didn’t think he’d be able to walk again. But after a year of hospitalization and intense rehabilitation, he eventually returned to Vietnam where his actions earned him the nation’s highest award.

During the Medal of Honor ceremony in 1981, President Ronald Reagan said, “If the story of his heroism were a movie script, you would not believe it.’

According to the official citation, on the morning of May 2, 1968, Benavidez, then a 33-year-old master sergeant, volunteered to help rescue a dozen or so soldiers wounded during a reconnaissance mission and surrounded by about a thousand North Vietnamese troops.

Armed only with a knife, Benavidez jumped from a helicopter and ran through gunfire, suffering wounds to his leg, face and head. He set up a defense line and helped the badly wounded soldiers into the aircraft.

During the rescue attempt, the helicopter pilot was shot and the hovering aircraft crashed. Benavidez then pulled the wounded out of the overturned aircraft, provided them with water and directed air strikes on enemy positions while awaiting a second attempt to evacuate the wounded.

After another helicopter arrived, Benavidez helped load the wounded, while doing so again under intense gunfire. At one point, he was clubbed from behind by an enemy soldier and forced into hand-to-hand combat before killing the man. Badly wounded, he managed to retrieve classified documents from the body of the team’s leader, before being pulled up into the helicopter and flying off to safety.

Covered in blood and presumed dead, he was being placed inside a body bag when he spat in a doctor’s face to prove he was still alive, he said at the Medal of Honor ceremony.

Benavidez died in 1998 at Brooke Army Medical Center after a long illness. The longtime resident of El Campo, near Houston, was 63.

Renaming effort

Efforts to honor him by renaming Fort Hood picked up steam in 2017 after a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. At the time, U.S. House Democrats sent a letter to then-Defense Secretary James Mattis urging him to consider removing the names of Confederate commanders from the U.S. Army posts.

Troy E. Mosley, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, said the American military “is one of the world’s greatest meritocracies.” Yet, Fort Hood and nine other Army posts are named after Confederate commanders, “who betrayed their oath to America to preserve the institution of slavery,” said Mosley, president of Citizens Against Intolerance, Maryland-based group working with LULAC on the issue.

Most of the 10 Army posts named after Confederate generals were built in the first half of the 20th century, a time when the country was still segregated, he said.

“These bases are monuments to America’s cultural ethos of racial inequality and this must change.”

Among the names Mosley suggested for Army posts include Medgar Evers, an Army sergeant in World War II better known as a black civil rights activist who was assassinated in 1963.

More inclusive culture

Retired U.S. Army general and former CIA director David Petraeus added his name to the renaming effort. Writing Tuesday in The Atlantic magazine, Petraeus said the nation is now wrestling with the “legacies of systemic racism,” as part of a larger effort to instill a more inclusive and welcoming culture.

“We do not live in a country to which Braxton Bragg, Henry L. Benning, or Robert E. Lee can serve as an inspiration,” Petraeus said. “The way we resolve these issues will define our national identity for this century and beyond.”

On social media platforms like Twitter, some people denounced the idea of renaming Fort Hood as an example of political correctness. Others names floated include Audie Murphy, a native Texan, who was one of the most decorated U.S. soldiers in World War II; Dwight D. Eisenhower, commanding general of allied forces in Europe and the 34th president of the United States; and Doris “Dorie” Miller, a black sailor awarded the Navy Cross for his bravery during the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Garcia said he plans to work with the Benavidez family and other groups, including veterans, to push for the name change at Fort Hood, saying the legendary veteran’s time has come.

“Sgt. Roy Benavidez is an authentic Texas hero, who fought with valor but has yet to be recognized by Texas and the country for his contributions.”


© 2020 The Dallas Morning News