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50 states, 50 heroes: A second chance

Born Nov. 19, 1938, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Louis Richard Rocco moved with his family to a housing project in Los Angeles, California, at a young age. They later moved to the Wilmington barrio of East Los Angeles, where Rocco dropped out of high school and joined a gang.

Frequently in trouble with the law, the 16-year-old Rocco found himself facing armed robbery charges. During a break in his trial, he met an Army recruiter at the courthouse. Upon hearing Rocco’s story, the recruiter convinced the judge to spare Rocco in exchange for disavowing his gang, following the law, and enlisting in the Army when he turned 17. Rocco followed the judge’s order and joined the Army in 1955.

After basic training, Rocco was stationed in Germany, where he earned his high school general equivalency diploma. He later joined the Special Forces and trained as a medic.

From 1965-66, Rocco served his first tour of duty in Vietnam. It was relatively uneventful, save being bitten by a venomous snake. When his second tour of duty came around in 1969, he was a Sgt. 1st Class with Advisory Team 162, U.S. Military Assistance Command.

On May 24, 1970, Rocco received word that several South Vietnamese soldiers had been badly wounded in an area northeast of Katum, a small village in the northern Tây Ninh Province of South Vietnam. He volunteered to fly with a medevac helicopter crew to evacuate the soldiers, but as they approached the landing zone, the chopper came under intense enemy fire. Rocco attempted to shoot back at the enemy positions with the door gun, but the chopper’s hydraulics were damaged, forcing it to crash into an open field.

Rocco fractured his wrist and hip and bruised his back in the crash. The chopper’s pilot was hit in the leg and the co-pilot’s arm was nearly severed. Both of them, along with the crew chief, were unconscious. The wreckage was on fire, but the nearby South Vietnamese soldiers, pinned down by enemy fire, were too afraid to come to their aid.

Weakened and in pain, Rocco grabbed one of the wounded men and carried him to a protected area about 50 yards from the crash site. He then returned to rescue the second and third crewmembers and carried them to safety. In the process, his hands suffered severe burns. Once he had them out of the wreckage, he administered first aid before losing consciousness. It took two days before medevac helicopters were able to reach them.

All three fellow crewmembers survived.

While recovering in an American field hospital, Rocco was informed that he had been recommended for the Medal of Honor. After not hearing anything for four years, Rocco learned that his recommendation had been stalled because he was Special Forces and not a member of a regular Army unit. His comrades, led by Lt. Lee Caubareaux, the co-pilot whose life he’d saved, lobbied the Pentagon to give Rocco the medal. On Dec. 12, 1974, President Gerald Ford presented the Medal of Honor to Rocco during a White House ceremony. Ford’s hands were shaking, and he told Rocco, “Sorry. I’m nervous. Yours is the first one of these I’ve given out.”

Rocco earned his Associates Degree before retiring from the Army in 1978 with the rank of Chief Warrant Officer 2. In his post-military years, he left California for New Mexico, where he helped establish the Vietnam Veterans of New Mexico organization. A veterans advocate, Rocco worked to counsel Vietnam veterans and started a shelter for the homeless and a nursing home for veterans. He also successfully lobbied the New Mexico legislature to waive tuition for veterans at state colleges.

Rocco went back to active duty during the Gulf War in 1991, working as a recruiter for medics at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. He was the Deputy State Director for Texas in San Antonio when he died of lung cancer on Oct. 31, 2002. He is buried at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.

A youth center in San Antonio was renamed the Louis Rocco Youth and Family Center in his honor.