Ben Snowden enlisted in the army in 1954 at age 17 while he was still in Georgetown High School. Twelve years later, he was on his third tour of duty in the Vietnam War when he tried to rescue several soldiers under fire on a patrol in Laos.
The helicopter that he was on had to hover about eight feet from the ground because tree stumps prevented it from landing. Snowden, a member of the special forces who was 6 feet 6 inches tall, reached down to grab a soldier being lifted up by a commander.
He never made contact. An enemy shot him several times in the chest with a machine gun, and Snowden died instantly. It was June 15, 1967.
His family found out this month — 45 years after he died — that he will be awarded the Silver Star for his courage.
“Our family is just thrilled it finally happened,” said one of his brothers, John Snowden of Georgetown. Snowden, a Marine, said he didn’t find out all the details of his brother’s death until 30 years after he died because the information was labeled classified.
He didn’t try to get a medal for his brother because his brother was a modest person. “He never cared about medals and thought he was just doing his job and probably if he was alive would have never pushed for it,” Snowden said.
The person who did push for the medal was Roger Widdows, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Georgetown and who never knew Ben Snowden. He said he met John Snowden on Memorial Day in 2009 and was struck by the similarities in their lives.
“It turned out that we had both lost our younger brothers in helicopter incidents in Vietnam,” Widdows said. “I said to myself if that had been my brother who was not getting any recognition for what he did, I would not feel good about it.”
Widdows said he contacted U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s office in 2009 about Ben Snowden but that it took three years to supply all the documents detailing what happened in order to get approval for the medal. “I must have contacted about 75 people, and many wanted to remain anonymous,” he said.
Widdows said he read a book called “SOG: The Secret War of American Commandos in Vietnam” by another Vietnam veteran named John Plaster, which provided details of Snowden’s last mission. He said Plaster helped him track down one of Ben Snowden’s former commanders — Lowell Stevens — who saw the incident. Stevens, who has since died, was able to help supply Widdows with an eyewitness account, Widdows said.
Snowden’s helicopter had to crash land in a ditch after Snowden was shot, Stevens wrote in an email he sent in 2004 to Carra Elkins, one of Snowden’s sisters. “For reasons I still can’t explain, I insisted on counting the bullet holes in the chopper he was on,” the email said. “There were 68 holes in the chopper. … He sacrificed his life in an attempt to help his fellow soldiers.”
“Ben was a vital part of our family, and we still miss him every day,” Elkins said. “He has always been my hero, but now he is everyone’s hero.”
Ben Snowden was 29 years old and married with three children when he died. His wife, Betty, never remarried and is recovering from surgery in Tennessee, John Snowden said.
Ben Snowden was the first soldier from Georgetown to die in Vietnam, John Snowden said. Georgetown VFW Post 8587 is named in his honor.
Distributed by MCT Information Services