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Wreaths Across America honors first Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient in new dedication

Retired Army Col. Roger H.C. Donlon poses next to the bust supporting his Medal of Honor, after a ceremony held by the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) in his honor, at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., Dec. 5, 2018. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Sean Hall)
October 02, 2020

Wreaths Across America is set to dedicate the Col. Roger Donlon Vietnam War & “Welcome Home” Room at the recently-renovated History and Hospitality House in Columbia Falls, Maine, this weekend.

As the first American soldier to earn the Medal of Honor in Vietnam, Col. Donlon has committed himself to honoring the service men and women who gave their lives in defense of freedom. His wife, Norma, has joined him in his efforts.

“I’m sitting here because of what happened to me 54 years ago,” said Col. Donlon in a video posted on the Wreaths Across America website. “I promised myself that I would do whatever I could, wherever and whenever, to bring honor and respect to the memories of those that made the ultimate sacrifice.”

The Vietnam War “Welcome Home” Room is the largest room in the house, meant to offer local Vietnam Veterans a space to gather and share stories.

“Norma and I are honored and proud to participate in the dedication of this special room.  As a Vietnam-era Gold Star Wife, Norma is grateful to WAA for providing a place where families can gather when visiting to participate in the Remembrance Tree Program,” Col. Donlon said. “As Blue Star parents of three sons who have served our country, we encourage others to visit WAA and enjoy the warm hospitality of the Worcester Family and all those involved with the mission to Remember— Honor— Teach.”

Donlon received the United States’ highest military award for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his own life above and beyond the call of duty” on December 17, 1964.

One of ten children, Donlon grew up in the Hudson Valley where he said his “strong father and mother set their compasses for life.” From his parents, he learned the importance of hard work, spirituality and the need to serve.

Donlon joined the Air Force in 1953, and after two years of service, earned admission to the Military Academy at West Point. He later qualified for the Army Special Forces and was sent to Vietnam in 1964.

Donlon’s Special Forces team was given a mission to train, advise and assist the Vietnamese, but on July 6, 1964, while Donlon was on guard duty, “all hell broke loose.” Their camp was attacked by the Viet Cong and it immediately became clear that many of the Vietnamese men who they were training were “infiltrators” for the Viet Cong.

“When we were attacked, there were more like 100 infiltrators. Their instructions were … to either break the neck or slit the throat of the person next to them,” Donlon said in a video shared to the Wreaths Across America website.

Despite the chaos and casualties, Donlon quickly directed his forces into a defensive position as mortars and heavy gunfire barraged the troops. Soon after, he spotted a group of Viet Cong crawling with rucks of demolition, and despite multiple wounds, pushed forward and successfully prevented them from blowing the main gate.

Against 800 to 900 Viet Cong, Donlon’s roughly 75 troops made a commitment to each other that they would never surrender and would “go down fighting.” Donlon continued to coordinate his troops for five hours, moving from position to position to deliver necessary supplies and administer first aid. Donlon’s leadership and bravery ultimately led to the successful defense of the camp.

“There’s a great sense of comfort…knowing that you’re now a member of the Congressional Medal of Honor society,” Col. Donlon said. “A band of brothers…you’d never hear the word hate amongst them. You killed the enemy because of the love you had for the man next to you. That love…is deeper than the man next to you because you know his whole family, you knew him that well, you knew their lives…you knew how brave they were just getting where they are. The most powerful emotion on earth is love. We have to remind ourselves that time and time again and convey that to the next generation.”