DECATUR, Ala. — Soon after shrapnel from a North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile sprayed the B-52 heavy bomber over Vietnam, Airman First Class Richard Gonzalez and five other crew members faced a critical decision.
The fragments damaged several of the plane's eight engines and wingtip fuel tanks. In addition to fuel, the pilot lost some control of the aircraft.
"But he told us we should be able to make it to Da Nang Air Base," said Gonzalez, a Decatur resident who at the time was a 20-year-old tail gunner. "Our other option was to parachute and ditch the plane over the Gulf of Tonkin to keep it from falling into enemy hands. Bailing out of a B-52 isn't easy. We all said Da Nang."
They made it safely to base in that April 9, 1972, incident. More than 40 years later, former-Staff Sgt. Gonzalez today was to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross during the third annual Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans ceremony in Huntsville.
About a year ago, Gonzalez, 62, said he began thinking about his Air Force accomplishments, realizing his family and friends knew nothing about them.
"I didn't want to pass away without my family, especially, knowing what I had gotten out of the military," he said. "I wouldn't have gotten as far as I have in every way without my military experience, and I was avoiding to acknowledge it."
Joe Podlesny, of Decatur, said he has known Gonzalez about 15 years.
"Richard is a heck of a patriot," Podlesny said. "He is proud of the fact he served in the Air Force, and he's proud to be an American."
Podlesny said Gonzalez is involved in the community, including his church, the Knights of Columbus and Vets With Vettes and Corvette Owners. He also plays senior tennis.
Gonzalez joined the Air Force with dreams of becoming an astronaut.
"I found out astronauts usually flew with the Air Force or the Navy, and I knew you had to have a degree," Gonzalez said.
The oldest of five children, he joined the Air Force after high school graduation in 1970 and took his first airplane ride, a 550-mile trip from his hometown of El Paso, Texas, to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.
He took an aptitude test and qualified for a flying slot, and he chose radar fire-control operator — or a B-52 tail gunner — without even understanding the job or what a B-52 was.
"But it's flying, and that was fine with me," he said.
Soon after, the military sought servicemen to go to Southeast Asia. His logic, he said, was to volunteer to replace tail gunners who had families or had lost family members.
Gonzalez had no idea where he would go, only that he would be dropping bombs in Vietnam.
"I was young, brave and invincible, and raring to do my job," he said.
But his acquaintance to the B-52 wasn't easy.
"It's like riding in a boat on rough seas," he said. "I threw up the first few flights, and that was it. I got used to it."
Flying with the 307th Strategic Wing out of U-Tapao Air Base in Thailand, Gonzalez would make more than 200 bombing missions.
He earned numerous awards, including the Air Medal with five oak clusters in March 1973. He knew he had earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, even though he never received it. Considering the public backlash in the period immediately following the war, he decided not to seek it out.
"I knew it wasn't good for me to advertise being a Vietnam veteran," Gonzalez said. "At the time, we weren't looked upon very favorably. I had heard the cries of ‘baby killers,' so until recently, I kept it to myself."
He will receive the medal just days before the 42nd anniversary of the April 9 incident. That day he was flying in the number two position of a three-ship B-52 formation engaged in close, heavy bombardment support for allied forces in South Vietnam. His aircraft was attacked by hostile forces and sustained major damages from the surface-to-air missile.
The citation that retired Air Force Lt. Col. Steven Hansen will present to Gonzalez states he "assisted the crew with his report of visible damage and contributed immensely to the decisions which resulted in a successful landing. The professional competence, aerial skill and devotion to duty displayed by Airman Gonzalez reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force."
After completing four years of service in the Air Force, he left it in 1974 as a staff sergeant.
He and his wife, the former Sole Escobar, also an El Paso native, married in 1978, the year he graduated from the University of Texas-El Paso.
He was working in New Mexico for the Army at the White Sands Missile Range when he was transferred to Decatur in 1990 to work with the Space and Missile Defense Command at Redstone Arsenal. He retired there in September 2008.
Family members, including his wife and their sons, Richard Anthony Gonzalez, of San Antonio, and Steven Gonzalez, of Nashville, and his wife, Ariel Palmer Gonzalez, were to attend today's presentation.