San Antonio vets among those recognized to get Medal of Honor
By SIG CHRISTENSON | The San Antonio Express-News | Published: February 22, 2014
SAN ANTONIO — In a desperate battle at the height of the Vietnam War, Spc. Santiago Jesus Erevia crawled from one wounded soldier to another, tending to their injuries and gathering rifles, grenades and ammunition before dashing toward the first of five enemy bunkers.
On a different day in another part of Vietnam, Sgt. 1st Class Jose Rodela scampered into a thicket of mortar and rocket fire, squeezing off rounds and organizing his troops in a bid to save them from being overrun. Wounded, he fought 18 hours.
Their heroic deeds in 1969 earned them the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest award for gallantry. Erevia and Rodela soon came home to San Antonio, and their most extraordinary moments began to slowly fade.
Forty-four years later, they're heroes all over again.
A Pentagon panel that scrutinized a raft of combat records decided that Rodela, 76, and Erevia, 68, deserved to receive the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for combat valor. They will be honored by President Barack Obama at a March 18 White House ceremony.
A Pentagon review of combat records found 24 soldiers should have received the Medal of Honor. Erevia and Rodela are two of only three soldiers in the group who still are alive.
More than a decade ago, Congress ordered a review of Jewish and Hispanic veterans' war records from World War II, Korean and Vietnam to ensure those deserving the Medal of Honor were not denied because of prejudice.
Of the two dozen men selected for the honor, 19 fell under those guidelines, including Erevia and Rodela.
The two veterans don't know what to think about suddenly being thrust from the comfort of obscure lives into a spotlight they never imagined and don't want.
“I'm a little disturbed,” said Rodela, who led Cambodian troops as a Special Forces soldier. “I don't like it, but I go along with it because of service to my country. I really wish they had left me alone, but I'm here and I'm going to give you the best I know.”
That both men are from San Antonio isn't a surprise. Long a crossroads for the military, the Alamo City claims 27 Medal of Honor recipients who were born, raised, enlisted, served or retired here.
Their names will be inscribed on pillars in a new monument, to be called the Medal of Honor River Portal, being built between the San Antonio River and the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.
Dwight “Eisenhower served his first tour of duty here,” said retired Army Maj. Gen. Patrick Brady, a Medal of Honor recipient living in New Braunfels. “Teddy Roosevelt trained his Rough Riders on the (Fort Sam) parade field. And (Benjamin) Foulois flew the first Army airplane here, so this is a great background.”
Both Erevia and Rodela came to the Army as high school dropouts and are Corpus Christi natives who rose from humble roots.
Erevia grew up on a farm in Nordheim, a small town southeast of San Antonio. He picked cotton as a kid and went to school, where he excelled in math, but his dad made him quit as a high school sophomore.
“I wanted to stay in school and he said, 'No, you can't,' and I said, 'OK, you're going to have a dumb son for not being a good father,'” Erevia said.
Erevia worked as a laborer in a cotton gin. Sometimes, pickers would load cotton in a truck he'd drive to the field. He also would load up watermelons and drop bales of Johnson grass for cattle.
Later, in the middle of a divorce, Erevia joined the Army, hoping to get his high school equivalency certificate and go to college — something he did along the way.
On May 21, 1969, his unit was on a search-and-destroy mission near Tam Ky City, a coastal town south of Da Nang, when things went wrong.
“We were up against a culvert, there's a mountain here, we had to cross about 100 yards and the captain and his radio-telephone operator were pinned down,” Erevia said.
“The captain said, 'Erevia, you and (another soldier) go up there and see what y'all can do.' So there was a tree about 30 yards from where the captain was, so we ran up towards the tree and we were back to back against the tree.”
He cries when he talks about the friend who went with him into the battle.
“You OK?” Erevia asked. “He never answered me.”
Erevia left his buddy, who had been shot in the head, and fired two M-16 rifles while charging a bunker and tossing a grenade into it.
“And then I went up behind another one, same thing. There was a total of five.”
Crouched in the culvert, his captain saw most of the attack while a handful of other GIs witnessed what happened at the last bunker.
“This guy was firing into the air,” Erevia said of the enemy soldier there. “That's what made it so dramatic, that five people were able to witness this. He popped out of the hole and he was firing up, and of course I got him with my M-16.”
Rodela, too, was a sophomore when he quit Miller High School in Corpus Christi to enter the Army. Tired of school, he followed two friends who had joined and thrived in the world of military discipline.
He wound up recruiting Cambodians in a Special Force unit he led. A sergeant first class, Rodela enjoyed the work of being the sole American NCO leading the Cambodians, who he viewed as superior fighters to the Vietnamese.
Like Erevia, he didn't mind being in contact with the enemy every few days, but there was one part of the routine Rodela disliked — losing men he had trained and recruiting more of them.
On Sept. 1, 1969, his battalion came under intense fire, as did two other units led by a pair of Special Forces soldiers who were his friends.
The Distinguished Service Cross citation states that when the battalion came under the mortar, rocket and machine gun barrage, “Sgt. Rodela, ignoring the withering enemy fire, immediately began placing his men into defensive positions to prevent an enemy assault which might overrun the entire battalion.”
The friends, Staff Sgt. Rudy Chavez and Sgt. 1st Class Joe Haga, were killed.
The citation noted that Rodela continued to fight even after being wounded by shrapnel to the head and back.
He was forced to take out an enemy gun emplacement manned by teenagers, perhaps 16 or 17, who were smiling and laughing at him.
“The rest of them left but they hung around that machine gun, and they kept shooting. I just went around the bushes and they just wouldn't leave, wouldn't leave. I shot them. I (yelled), 'Get out of here!'” Rodela said. “I was trying to recover my people; they were being shot by the machine gun. They kept interfering. Young kids! Wow, that's what bothers me. I had to shoot them.”
Back home, both men started new lives as civilians. Erevia went to work at the post office, and Rodela spent his first five years after the war in Central America, where he went into business with a seamstress who made maternity dresses.
“I disappeared,” Rodela said, saying he wanted to get away from the war.
Rodela is a proud man who walks more than a mile a day to and from a McDonalds, where he has breakfast with his son, Edmund, a veteran of the Marine Corps.
Erevia has had health woes that included a heart attack. He likes to walk to a park on the South Side, and has gained enough strength to do 25 pushups.
Brady, the Medal of Honor recipient, said it's common for troops to have mixed feelings about the award.
“I don't know anybody, the young guys or old guys, who don't have that feeling, that they didn't deserve this and some of them feel a little guilty ... because some of the guys they tried to save, they didn't save.
Despite their reservations, Rodela and Erevia will attend the White House ceremony. They're unlikely to hit the speaker circuit and instead will try to return to quiet lives and familiar routines.
“I can't forget it, it's just I don't repeat it. I don't want to repeat it. There was a lot of people hurt, a lot of people who never came back. Let them rest,” Rodela said.
“They say you deserve it. I'll take it in stride. And I'll jump in joy,” Erevia said, “but I'm going to jump in joy by myself in the bedroom.”