Hero’s actions in Vietnam honored 43 years later
“It was a weird day,” he said. Phillips was a member of the 101st Airborne Division where one of his duties was to serve as “point man,” or the soldier who would scout ahead of an advancing squad to warn of dangers. This day, said Phillips, he got too far ahead of his squad and the blast from an enemy rocket propelled grenade knocked him to the ground in an enemy field. He said he no longer had his rifle and his handgun wouldn’t cock. He was stranded in enemy territory roughly 125 meters ahead of his own troops.
A Vietnamese soldier was near Phillips’ position, and a firefight ensued between the enemy and Phillips’ squad. “It was just like a scene in a movie,” he said. Sergeant Thomas R. Gdovin, of Westlake, Ohio, and part of Phillips’ troop, was eventually able to run to Phillips and drag him back to safety, risking his own life to save a fellow soldier.
Fast forward to Nov. 8, 2011, when U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) presented Gdovin a Silver
Star medal during a ceremony in Washington, DC, to honor his heroics in 1968. Phillips was invited to attend the ceremony, along with retired Lieutenant General John Cushman, Gdovin and Phillips’ Brigade Commander in Vietnam.
According to a press release from Portman’s office, the Silver Star is the third-highest combat military decoration that can be awarded to a member of the Armed Forces for valor in the face of the enemy. Gdovin and his family reached out to Portman’s office in February asking for help in receiving recognition for his actions in Vietnam. According to the release, Portman and his staff worked with the Army to facilitate the process and gather the letters of recommendation needed for Gdovin to receive the Silver Star, an award he’s been eligible to receive for over 40 years.
Phillips had to write one of the letters, which was very difficult for him although he wanted his comrade to receive the honor. “Being a Vietnam vet, you never talk to anybody,” he said. Phillips said when he returned to the United States after serving in Vietnam, he and his fellow soldiers were told not to wear their uniforms off base. “People hated us because we did our job,” said Phillips. His wife helped him complete his letter in support of Gdovin’s Silver Star. “It’s different to put stuff down on paper,” said Phillips. “A sound, a smell, a taste, an old song – it brings all the stuff rushing back to you.”
Nov. 5, Phillips traveled to Washington, D. C. ahead of the ceremony to re-connect with people from his squad he hadn’t seen in more than 40 years.
“This trip to Washington was our welcome home,” he said. It was an extremely emotional experience, including laying a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. “That was beautiful,” said Phillips, as was visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. He also visited Arlington National Cemetery, where a sugar maple tree was planted in Gdovin’s honor. “It was humbling,” he said.
Phillips said times have certainly changed from the days just after the Vietnam War, when American troops were ostracized upon returning home. “In Washington, everybody wanted to shake your hand,” he said. “It all went by too quickly.”
During the Nov. 8 ceremony, as Portman was presenting the Silver Star to Gdovin, Portman said, “ I feel very privileged today to play a very small role to honor the very proud history of the 101st Airborne Division. Let’s ensure that we honor and remember all our veterans, not just this week, but throughout the days and years to come. Their commitment to this nation is a shining example to all of us.”
“This is very overwhelming,” said Gdovin. “Thank you Senator Portman...for all you and your exceptional staff has done to make this possible.
“I couldn’t be more proud to stand here today. Over the years, how could my pride have grown any greater than having served with men that gave everything for their country and each other. Though today this medal represents my actions, it represents their sacrifice,” said Gdovin.
As so many records have been lost during conflicts, Phillips said it’s not unusual for servicemen to receive honors years, even decades after the fact. He said some WWII vets are only now receiving deserved medals.
Far from feeling any shame for his role in the Vietnam War, Phillips has visited local schools and events to discuss being a veteran. “More Vietnam vets should open up,” he said. “It would really help them.”
Phillips received a Bronze Star which he said came in the mail. He was also awarded a Purple Heart for the injuries he suffered