PORTLAND, Maine — On Oct. 15, 1970, in the steamy hot jungles of Vietnam, Pvt. Rob Jackson did something most soldiers probably would avoid. He ran into the middle of a ferocious firefight without a weapon.
All because he heard someone shout one word: “Doc!”
Jackson was an Army medic assigned to Company C, 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry. He helped save lives in that battle in the Cu Chi district outside Saigon and was awarded the Silver Star, the military’s third-highest medal for bravery in combat.
But he refused to accept it. Jackson felt that he didn’t deserve a medal for simply doing his job on that horrific day.
Four decades later, he has changed his mind. The 66-year-old brick mason and preacher was presented with the Silver Star at a ceremony Thursday in Washington, D.C.
“It’s like the completion of a circle,” says Jackson, who lives in Buxton.
Jackson was drafted, but he was also a conscientious objector. He wasn’t opposed to serving in the military, but he didn’t want to kill anyone. The Army placed him in a noncombat role as a medical aidman.
“I had just connected with God,” he says. “It wasn’t like Roman candles, but it was a very powerful, very meaningful conversion.”
Jackson refused to carry a weapon. Instead, he carried his Bible and his first aid kit whenever he was on a mission. He needed both that day.
“We were out in the field,” he says, “and there was a radio call that our other squad mates were in a battle, come help.”
His platoon sergeant, Gregory Yahn, remembers heading into an area that U.S. troops hadn’t entered in at least six months.
“We had no idea what we were going into,” Yahn says.
They quickly found out.
“It turned out to be several hundred (enemy troops),” Yahn says. “Our two platoons comprised about 40 guys, tops.”
They were outgunned and in trouble.
“We called in air support,” Jackson says. “We called in everything we could. … We were very close to being overrun and all of us killed.”
Jackson was the only medic on duty. His sergeant had no qualms about that fact.
“I knew I could depend upon Doc,” says Yahn, referring to Jackson by his nickname. “You could always count on him to do his job, and that’s exactly what he did.”
The cry for help that Jackson heard was from Sgt. Joe Roberts, who had just been fatally shot in the chest.
“I went charging up,” Jackson says, “scrambling over people to get to where I heard the voice. … It never entered my head to just go down and stay down, or grab somebody’s rifle and go up. … I still feel the training was really important. And the Lord.”
After dragging Roberts back to a waiting helicopter, Jackson tried to save another man, Lt. Jonathan Shine, who had been shot in the head. He remembers telling Shine he’d come back for him.
“I started back to get Shine … and a fellow who was the grenade launcher … he stopped me. I said, ‘Excuse me, I gotta get back.’ And he said, ‘Don’t go back…he’s gone,’ ” Jackson says, struggling to hold back tears.
When it was all over, Jackson faced another fight – this one with his sergeant.
“He calls me in,” Jackson says, “real matter of fact. ‘I want you to be down at the parade ground. General so-and-so is coming. You’re gonna get the Silver Star.’ I said, ‘I don’t want it.’ ”
“I think it was mainly because people were killed,” Jackson says. “Families were torn to pieces. And it was not appropriate for me to take a medal. Period.”
But time has taken some of the pain away.
A few months ago, Jackson saw a news story about a World War II veteran who had once refused to accept a Purple Heart, but who, decades later, had a change of heart.
“I pondered that,” he says.
He realized, he says, that what happened in Vietnam is part of his life story. He says it’s a story his children and grandchildren should know – because it’s their family history, too.
Jackson’s wife, Denise, says her husband is a humble guy who doesn’t like to draw attention to himself. She’s glad he’s now able to accept the recognition he deserves.
“He always does whatever he has to do,” she says, “to do the right thing, no matter the personal cost.”
Thursday morning, Rob Jackson proudly accepted the Silver Star for “gallantry in action.” The medal was presented by Maine congresswoman Chellie Pingree, whose staff helped Jackson wade through the Army bureaucracy to have the commendation reissued.
The citation reads in part: “With complete disregard for his own safety, Private Jackson unhesitatingly maneuvered under a hail of enemy machine gun fire to reach the wounded soldiers and render first aid. … The bravery, aggressiveness and devotion to duty exhibited by Private Jackson are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, the 25th Infantry Division and the United States Army.”
The ceremony was held at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The names of the two men in Jackson’s squad who were killed in that long-ago battle are etched in that granite wall.
In accepting the Silver Star, Jackson planned to say their names out loud – along with the name of every man in his unit.
He didn’t forget them 44 years ago. He’s not about to forget them today.