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Medal of Honor recipient Rudy Hernandez laid to rest Monday

Cpl. Rodolfo "Rudy" Hernandez was given a hero's farewell Monday when hundreds gathered to pay their respects to the fallen Medal of Honor recipient.

Hernandez, who died Dec. 21 at age 82, was laid to rest at Sandhills State Veterans Cemetery in Spring Lake.

Officials said Hernandez was the first recipient of the U.S. military's highest honor to be buried in a state veterans cemetery.

During a funeral at Covenant Love Church on Dunn Road, Hernandez was hailed for his love, courage and humility.

Pastors said the Korean War veteran was always smiling and was a devout churchgoer.

Pastor Al Brice of Covenant Love said one of Hernandez's favorite sermons involved the showdown between David and Goliath. The story of the underdog triumphing over daunting odds was something Hernandez could relate to, Brice said.

Hernandez earned the Medal of Honor in 1951 when, faced with a head wound he thought mortal, he single-handedly charged into North Korean soldiers armed only with grenades and a bayonet.

His actions spurred his fellow soldiers, who had been withdrawing, to attack. Hernandez was found the next day near death but surrounded by the bodies of six enemy soldiers who had been killed with the bayonet.

Hernandez carried wounds from that battle, including scars from being stabbed in the face, for the rest of his life. He had a number of health problems caused by his injuries.

He died last month after battling cancer and other ailments, friends and family have said.

At the church and at the cemetery, Hernandez was remembered as someone who was a hero throughout his life, not just in Korea.

Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, commander of Fort Bragg and the 18th Airborne Corps, said Hernandez was an inspiration.

Anderson said it was only fitting that Fort Bragg's Warrior Transition Battalion complex was named in Hernandez's honor.

"He faced every challenge head on," Anderson said, adding that his "indomitable spirit" set the example for not just wounded soldiers but everyone.

"We will never forget Rudy," he said before addressing the Hernandez family. "Your Army family will always be there for you."

In a video played during the service, Hernandez spoke of his childhood in California as the son of migrant workers. He said he joined the Army so he could send money home to his family.

Hernandez also said he took pride in being an Airborne soldier.

"I was feeling like Superman," he said. "I was 10 feet tall."

Photographs showed a young Hernandez in uniform and Hernandez wearing his Medal of Honor while meeting President Kennedy.

But in his own words, Hernandez said he never joined the military for a medal.

Those words were echoed by his son, also named Rudy Hernandez.

"The medals didn't mean anything to us," the younger Hernandez said. "He was just our dad."

Hernandez is survived by his wife, Denzil Hernandez, and three children with his first wife, Bertha Hernandez.

The younger Hernandez thanked the community and those present for embracing his father.

"I want to thank everybody," he said. "The love and the support, the respect, the honor for my dad is very much appreciated by us."

Hernandez moved to Fayetteville in 1980 after spending several years as a veterans benefits counselor in Los Angeles. While much of his family remains in California, the younger Hernandez said it was fitting that his father be buried near Fort Bragg.

"This was his home," he said. "He didn't want to be buried in California."

Attendees included local and state officials, three other Medal of Honor recipients and Lt. Col. Kang Moon Ho, assistant defense attache for the Korean Embassy.

During the more than 11-mile drive from Covenant Love to Sandhills State Veterans Cemetery, more than two dozen law enforcement helped lead a procession that included hundreds of vehicles, including representatives of several veterans motorcycle groups.

Hernandez was buried with full military honors, and three Black Hawk helicopters flew over the cemetery in his honor.

Soldiers from Fort Bragg and Fort Campbell, Ky., participated, with the later serving as pallbearers.

Col. J.B. Vowell, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, said attending Hernandez's funeral was a privilege. Vowell's brigade traces its lineage to the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team, the unit that Hernandez served with in Korea.

"Rudy was a national treasure," Vowell said. "He'll be a part of our unit now and forever."

Before his death at Womack Army Medical Center, Hernandez served as grand marshal of the Fayetteville Veterans Day parade in November.

He is also the focus of an upcoming diorama at the Airborne & Special Operations Museum in downtown Fayetteville. Officials said the diorama will be part of a larger Korean War exhibit and will show the actions that earned Hernandez the Medal of Honor.

A life-size mannequin of Hernandez is on display at the museum in honor of his passing.

brooksd@fayobserver.com

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