Platoon leader: MOH recipient Alvarado's actions 'were always extraordinary'
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Lenora Alvarado never had the chance to know her father, to feel the love in his embrace or benefit from his advice or experience.
Some 10 months after her birth in Bakersfield, Lenora's father, Army Spc. Leonard Alvarado, was killed in Phuoc Long Province, Vietnam while defending his platoon against overwhelming enemy grenade and machine gun fire.
He was 22.
According to battlefield accounts, the East Bakersfield High School alumnus was wounded yet continued advancing and firing into the fusillade, silencing enemy emplacements and possibly saving the lives of many of his comrades.
Next month, nearly 45 years after his death, Alvarado will be awarded the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony for the valor and selflessness he displayed the night of Aug. 12, 1969.
For the soldiers with whom he served, Alvarado was a legend, a man who transformed as soon as he entered the jungles of Southeast Asia.
"He was the scariest guy I have ever seen," remembered Steve Koppenhoefer, a first lieutenant and Alvarado's platoon leader in the summer of '69.
Alvarado was tall, Koppenhoefer remembered, maybe 6 feet, 4 inches. He looked like a pretty regular guy when he wasn't in the bush.
"In the jungle, he had scimitar sideburns and coal-black eyes. He was intimidating," Koppenhoefer, now 69, recalled during a phone interview from his home in Seneca, Ill.
"People in my platoon loved to tell stories about Alvarado."
Following his death, the east Bakersfield native was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest military award that can be given to a member of the U.S. Army.
But on March 18, Alvarado's medal, and the medals of nearly two dozen other veterans, both living and dead, will be upgraded from the Distinguished Service Cross to the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for a member of the armed forces.
The seeds of these upgrades were planted in 2002, according to a press release from the White House. That's when Congress called for a review of Jewish American and Hispanic American veteran war records to ensure those deserving the Medal of Honor were not denied because of prejudice.
During the review, according to the release, records of several soldiers of neither Jewish nor Hispanic descent were also found to display criteria worthy of the Medal of Honor. As a result, the 2002 act was amended to allow all deserving soldiers, regardless of ethnic heritage, to be honored with the upgrade.
Lenora Alvarado, now 45 and a mother four, has pieced together a sense of who her father was through cracked and yellowing photographs, her grandmother's stories and the memories of friends and comrades who served with him in Vietnam.
Sometimes the daughter visits the grave of her father in Bakersfield. And she talks to him.
"I talk, I laugh, I cry," she said. "My father is not here, but it helps me. It gives me a sense that he can hear me."
And she wonders how her life might have been different had he not gone to Vietnam.
According to his citation for bravery and Koppenhoefer's memory of that night, Alvarado was serving as a rifleman with Company D, 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division when another platoon was caught in a bad situation near a French-built road known as Highway 14. The radio calls became frantic.
"I recommended him for the DSC based on his extraordinary actions that night," Koppenhoefer wrote in a tribute to Alvarado. "His actions in the face of the enemy were always extraordinary."
Early in the fight, Alvarado took his M60 machine gun and his ammo bearer and went after the enemy, breaking up the attack and saving many lives.
"Possibly including mine," recalled Koppenhoefer, who was awarded a Silver Star for his own actions that night.
As Alvarado and his ammo bearer moved forward, an enemy grenade exploded nearby, wounding and stunning him. According to the citation, Alvarado killed the soldier just as another enemy barrage wounded him again.
He began maneuvering forward alone. "Though repeatedly thrown to the ground by exploding satchel charges, he continued advancing and firing," the citation reads.
When Koppenhoefer saw Alvarado staggering back without his weapon, he ran out to help — but it was too late.
As green tracers zipped by, Lt. Koppenhoefer and another man pulled their wounded comrade to cover.
"I am positive I heard his last words," Koppenhoefer remembered. "He was in his final moments."
The platoon leader had seen death before, but he was truly shocked.
"He seemed invincible."
"I went into the jungle with 28 men — and left with 14," he said. It was a profound and grinding loss he has lived with for four and a half decades. A wound that never stops bleeding.
"I'm really glad he is getting this acknowledgement," the former Army lieutenant said of Alvarado. "And I'm glad Lenora, who has grown up without a father, is too."