There are a few Medal of Honor recipients who had the chance to reflect on their bravest day soon after it happened.
Others heard whispers around their camp during the next few days that they were up for a big award nomination.
Many never pondered what they did, or how it might be viewed by their commanders, until much later. Army Col. Gordon R. Roberts, the last Vietnam-era Medal of Honor recipient to retire from service, fell into that last group.
“I don’t know that [the memories] were vivid the next day,” Roberts said. “I had another firefight, so I didn’t have time to think about who was lost. I had to focus on the new guy that came in as a replacement.”
Roberts enlisted fresh out of high school in 1968 and joined his father’s old unit, the 101st Airborne, according to a biography provided by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
On July 11, 1969, then Spc. 4th Class Roberts’ platoon was planning an attack on a heavily fortified North Vietnamese army group that was ready to overrun another U.S. Army unit.
Roberts, with Company B, 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, remembers the blunt motivation his company commander gave his platoon: “We get to them tonight, or we bury them in the morning.”
As Roberts’ platoon maneuvered along a ridgeline, grenades and automatic weapons fire erupted from bunkers on an overlooking hill.
He hit the dirt, but not for long.
“Seeing his platoon immobilized and in danger of failing in its mission, [Roberts] crawled rapidly toward the closest enemy bunker,” according to his award citation.
He then jumped up and fired, killing both enemy soldiers in the first bunker. He moved on to the second bunker, where enemy rifle fire knocked his rifle away. He picked up a rifle dropped by a comrade and took out the second bunker.
Roberts wasn’t done yet. He took out a third bunker with grenades and came upon a fourth, which he fought his way past under a hail of bullets. He made contact with the pinned-down U.S. unit and helped move their wounded to an evacuation point.
Roberts was awarded the Medal of Honor nearly two years later by President Richard Nixon while stationed at Fort Meade, Md.
“It’s like being a rookie, and all of the sudden, you’re a star player,” Roberts said. “But you’ve heard that line, ‘You’re only as good as your next battle.’ ”
Roberts left the Army soon afterward, graduated from college and became a social worker. He spent 18 years in that role until accepting a direct commission from the Ohio National Guard in 1989. He rejoined active duty two years later, served in Iraq in 2005 and ended his military career with the 1st Theater Sustainment Command in Kuwait in July 2012.
Roberts now spends his time balancing family life with requests for public appearances. He talks with veterans of today’s wars, encouraging them to put the past behind them as best they can and move on to the next challenge.
He also hears from fellow Vietnam veterans, some of whom he says reach an epiphany about the things they did for their fellow soldiers so many years ago.
“They would have great families, be active in their communities,” Roberts said. “But then they figure out that, ‘Where I started was where I counted most.’ ”