WASHINGTON – It's 33 years overdue, but Stephen E. Lawrence is finally receiving the official Army recognition he earned for exceptional heroism in the late stages of the Vietnam War (search).
At a ceremony in the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes on Friday, the Army is presenting to Lawrence the Distinguished Service Cross (search), the second-highest military award for valor, for rescuing the crew of a downed helicopter while under heavy fire near the village of Tay Ninh on Oct. 5, 1971.
Lawrence was nominated for the award in May 1972, but by then he had returned to civilian life. He said in a telephone interview on Thursday that the Army never notified him, even though his official home of record — Virginia Beach, Va. — remained valid for many years afterward.
Now living in Clearwater, Fla., Lawrence, 56, sounds more annoyed than bitter about the long delay.
"It would have been nice 33 years ago," he said with a chuckle. "But it's real nice today," with the added benefit of having his family, including two children, present for the ceremony.
"The real story is that this is not really about the medal. It's about long-lost friends" who set out to correct what they saw as an injustice done to a fellow war veteran, he said.
Lawrence had almost finished his one-year tour in Vietnam when, as the pilot of a UH-1M "Huey" helicopter gunship, he chose to attempt a rescue of another American helicopter that had gone down in flames in an area near the Cambodian border known to be an enemy stronghold.
According to the official Army citation, Lawrence twice landed his gunship near the burning aircraft before he and his crew managed to get the downed crew aboard and fly away under heavy fire.
"Chief Warrant Officer Lawrence's utter disregard for his personal safety, his devotion to duty and outstanding flying expertise enabled the crews of both aircraft to return to safety," the citation says.
Within days he had departed Vietnam, returned to Fort Lewis, Wash., and been discharged from the Army.
Before he left the war front his commanding officer told him that he intended to nominate Lawrence for the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest honor for military valor. That was the last Lawrence heard of the matter until last summer, when he had dinner with fellow Vietnam vet Roger Almquist, who was surprised to hear Lawrence had been awarded nothing beyond the Distinguished Flying Cross, which was presented to him two days after the rescue mission.
"He wanted to hear the whole story again. I hadn't told the story in 30 years, I don't think. So I told him the story, and he said, 'And you got nothing?' And I said, 'Yep, got nothing.'"
Almquist decided that should not be allowed to stand. He began researching the matter and soon discovered that the completed paperwork for the Distinguished Service Cross, dated May 1, 1972, was in Lawrence's files at the National Archives. For unexplained reasons the Army never notified Lawrence, who remained in the Army National Guard for another seven years. He also served for 15 years in the Coast Guard, retiring from the Coast Guard Reserve in 1994.
Lawrence is one of 846 soldiers who received the Distinguished Service Cross for Vietnam service, according to Army records. As far as he can tell, he never was nominated for the Medal of Honor.
Now that he's out of uniform, Lawrence feels the award has lost just a little of its luster.
"I have a Distinguished Service Cross and nowhere to wear it," he said. "But that's just the way life is."