‘At that moment, he could have ducked for cover’

Bill Sloat receives the Medal of Honor on behalf of his brother U.S. Army Vietnam veteran Spc. 4 Don Sloat. <br>Meredith Tibbetts/Stars and Stripes
Bill Sloat receives the Medal of Honor on behalf of his brother U.S. Army Vietnam veteran Spc. 4 Don Sloat.

Evelyn Sloat had her dress picked out for the day she would meet the president and finally see her late son, Spc. 4 Donald Sloat, honored for his sacrifice in Vietnam that saved the lives of three soldiers. It was tan with a blue floral design and she had sent her daughter to Tulsa to buy it for her.

For years she had worked tirelessly to find out what really happened to her son in Vietnam more than 40 years ago, and she thought the time was near for her son to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

The military had erroneously told the family he had stepped on a land mine, but after a tip from a relative Evelyn Sloat started unraveling the incredible story of her son’s courageous final act.

The story she finally uncovered, is now reflected in the Army’s official account:

On Jan. 17, 1970, Sloat’s squad, part of 3rd Platoon, Delta Company, 2/1 196th Light Infantry Brigade, was on patrol in the Que Son Valley, southwest of Da Nang. As they moved single-file up a hill the lead soldier tripped a booby trap wire, sending a live grenade toward the 20-year-old Sloat and other soldiers. Sloat initially tried to throw the grenade away from other soldiers but, with fellow troops all around him, he smothered the grenade with his body.

The blast injured three fellow soldiers, but they survived and Sloat, who was killed by the blast, is credited with saving their lives.

Born in 1949, Sloat grew to be a tall, athletic teen who was well liked and good at sports, but struggled in school, his brother, Dr. Bill Sloat, said. He played junior college football, and while he excelled on the field he never got the sports scholarship he was hoping for and could not afford to finish his degree. After making a pact with a friend, he joined the Army and found himself in Vietnam as a machine-gunner.

Before that, though, he went back time and again until he passed the physical — he kept failing due to high blood pressure but was determined to make it.

As with most things, once he had made up his mind, there was no talking him out of it, Bill Sloat said.

“He wanted to enjoy the world and he wanted to do it on his terms,” he said.

Sloat had been in Vietnam about four months when he was killed. For nearly four decades, the family accepted the military’s version of the story. But in 2007, a relative saw a website set up by one of the men Sloat had saved, praising him for the act of bravery about which his mother had never known. So Evelyn Sloat began what would be a yearslong quest to tell the true story of her son.

A woman of deep faith, Evelyn Sloat had already weathered the premature deaths of three of her sons when she got an inkling of Donald’s heroism. Despite being in her 80s and suffering from diabetes and serious lung and heart problems, she spent nearly every waking moment trying to get her son’s story out, Donald Sloat’s sister, Karen McCaslin, said

“Once we learned how Don had actually died, it was my mom’s every single day’s quest to make phone calls, to call out state representatives, to call our congressmen, just anyone and everyone she could prod into helping her,” she said. “It was her son and she wanted the truth told about his death.”

First they had to get his military records unsealed. Once they did, the only clue the records offered was that he was killed by a grenade, according to McCaslin, who helped her mother in her mission. The records said nothing about him shielding his comrades from the blast.

A breakthrough came when they got hold of a colonel in Sloat’s Army unit, who began researching the case along with a Vietnam historian.

Finally, in 2012, Sloat’s Medal of Honor packet was submitted and that’s when his mother got disheartening news: It could take three to five years to get an answer.

In 2014, the family got the call they were hoping for — Sloat would be awarded the military’s highest honor — and McCaslin said “tears of joy” swept across the Sloat clan upon the announcement.

On Sept. 15, 2014, President Barack Obama presented Bill Sloat his brother’s long-awaited Medal of Honor in the East Room of the White House in front of a packed house full of military officials and press.

“It was the culmination of the work that my mother put in,” Bill Sloat said.

The president praised Donald Sloat’s bravery at the ceremony.

“At that moment, he could have ducked for cover,” Obama said. “But Don did something truly extraordinary.”

Evelyn Sloat never got to take her dress to Washington; she died aged 84 on Christmas Eve 2012, nearly two years before her son was finally recognized by his country. McCaslin said her death made the honor bittersweet but she’s heartened by the fact that her mother knew it would happen and never lost faith.

“I would give everything if Momma could have been there,” McCaslin said.

Twitter: @Druzin_Heath

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Stars and Stripes - Heroes 2015