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Oral History Interview with CW2 Louis R. Rocco

AMEDD Medal of Honor Awardees > Warrant Officer Louis R. Rocco

AMEDD Medal of Honor Oral History Interviews

(19 NOVEMBER 1938 - 31 OCTOBER 2002)

CW2 Rocco (then Sergeant First Class) received the Medal Of Honor for actions performed 24 May 1970. Read his Medal of Honor citation for distinguished actions while volunteering to accompany an urgent medical evacuation team in Vietnam.

We were honored to interview CW2 Rocco on two separate occasions. In the first interview he talked about joining the Army, his two tours in Vietnam and his 22 year Army career. The second interview took place after CW2 Rocco came back on active duty during the first Gulf War. This is the transcript of the first interview conducted 15 March 1987.

Interviewer:  Would you like to tell me a little about your training when you first came in the service, how you got into the Army and then what training you went through, and where you were assigned?

Rocco:  Okay. Getting in the Army was a choice. Either came in or went to jail. I was in a lot of trouble in my youth. So I enlisted and took basic training at Fort Ord. Went from Fort Ord to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Took advanced infantry training there, as well as basic medical school there. We were trained through the division, medical battalion. Following the medical training I was an aid-man with the 504th Airborne Infantry. Stayed there for a couple of years and then I went to the 11th Airborne. Again, a medic with the airborne engineer battalion. And spent a total of 22 years in the medical field. Attended various medical schools, to include the physicians assistance course.

Interviewer:  So you had two tours in Vietnam during your service, didn't you?

Rocco:  Yes.

Interviewer:  When were they?

Rocco:  Went in November of '65 to '66. And then November of '69 to May of '70.

Interviewer:  What units were you assigned with over there?

Rocco:  I was with MACV both times. Vietnamese 7th Division my first tour. The second tour I was with the Vietnamese Airborne.

Interviewer:  So were you an advisor?

Rocco:  I was a medical advisor.

Interviewer:  When you were over in Vietnam, was it with the 162, or second time?

Rocco:  162, right. Which was the medical advisory airborne, I mean airborne advisory team.

Interviewer:  The events that took place when you got the Medal of Honor occurred during your second tour, is that right?

Rocco:  The second tour.

Interviewer:  Was it near the beginning of your tour?

Rocco:  No, in fact it was during a period that I was about a week away from my R&R. I was there seven or eight months and I was getting ready to go on R&R. We were making that push into Cambodia at that particular time. I was working with the 1st Cav. The 1st Cav was giving me helicopter support for the Vietnamese and we were in a joint operation throughout 3rd Corps and into Cambodia. And I was taking care of Vietnamese casualties, as well as American casualties. In a clearing station there on the border of Vietnam and Cambodia, was a place called Katum. And I had one medevac ship flying for me. And they were starting to get flooded with Vietnamese that were trying to leave the battle scene. So they just kept swarming the aircraft. And the pilots told me that unless I flew with them, and started sorting the people out, and keeping the rest of them off of the chopper, that they weren't going to fly for me no more. So I started flying medevac missions with them, and I, when we set down I’d go on, I’d check the wounded out and sort them out. And start medevacing the seriously, you know, going to the triage form of evacuation. In May of '70, 20th of May, got a call that they had some urgently wounded people. They were taking a lot of fire, taking a lot of casualties. And we called back and asked to see where they were receiving fire from. And they told us they were receiving fires from north, south, and east. And that only left one approach into the LZ. And when we got there we were receiving fire from everywhere. As we started to hover down we were taking a lot of fire. So the advisors on the ground told us to get out of there. But by that time we were committed, and when we tried to get back the plane, the chopper just took intense fire and was shot down. And we hit an open field between the NVA and the South Vietnamese troop forces. The plane hit and it turned over it's, on it's side and started burning. And I, you know, in the time that we're being shot at we're shooting back. We, the 1st Cav used to carry 60's on their choppers. And myself and the medic were firing our 16's. We had the 60's out firing. When shot down, we had a case of M60 grenades, rounds, on board. And we had ammo on board. We hit. The aircraft caught fire. One of the pilots had a, received an AK round through his leg. Another, the other pilot had his arm ripped off. It was hanging. The medic had his back and hip broken, and his jaw completely ripped off. And one gunner was trapped in the chopper. The other one was in shock. So I pulled these guys and pulled them out of the helicopter and carried them to an open field, and put them behind a huge tree that was knocked down that offered protection. And I just ran back and forth across this, like a football field, and pulled them back. And after we were behind this tree later on the South Vietnamese came and took us into their perimeter. You could not get medevacs to come in. It was, we were under heavy fire for all that day and that night. We started calling in fire on our own position. The two companies were disseminated. They were, they had their dead just stacked like cord wood. So, on the second, they tried three attempts. Two helicopters got shot down trying to get us out. But they were able to get out of the fire zone. And on the second day they came in full force. They brought in what they call the Cobras. Had air strikes going. Just had everything available. They just brought in as much artillery, and air support as they could. While they were saturating the area they flew in a medevac behind the two Cobras. And threw us on board, and under fire, they pulled us out.

Interviewer:  Did all the crew survive?

Rocco:  No. Gunner was trapped in the, door gunner was trapped in the bird. The medic was really hurt bad. He was burned and broken back and his jaw was, as I say, was ripped off. He later, about a year later in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, he committed suicide. The crew chief was totally in shock. Two pilots survived. They were given medical discharges. They repaired, Lee, Lee Cubero who was the ship commander, they repaired his shoulder. He went through a lot of operations and long hospitalization. Now he's a civilian, doing fine.

Interviewer:  You had some broken bones while this was going on when you hit, didn't you?

Rocco:  Yeah. I hit my wrist and had a back strain. Burns of the face and hands. Got burned on the last trip when I went to get the medic out. He was the last guy that I pulled out of the chopper. By that time the craft was on fire. And, so I got burned getting him out.

Interviewer:  Were you under fire the whole time you were doing the extractions? Across that open area.

Rocco:  The thing that saved, that really saved me was that, and they were the ones that, the pilots of the, the Cobra pilots, stayed on, stayed on line. And they kept spraying the area and they provided covering fire as I was making the runs, and carrying these guys. If those Cobra pilots wouldn't have saturated the area as I was doing this, there's no way that I would have survived. Because the fire was so intense that, you used to put a stick, you know, lay flat on our backs and we'd put a stick up and it was like being cut with a stick, or...fire was just extremely intense. And they were hitting us with everything. It turned out, later on we found out it turned out it was a regimental bunker complex. And they were armed to the teeth. They had a, they had a lot of firepower.

Interviewer:  What have you done with your life since you've been out of the service? You retired after 22 years, when?

Rocco:  Right. I retired in 1978. And I started, I wanted to get a business degree, so I went to the University of New Mexico. And I was working in the emergency room at night, as a PA. Then I started seeing that a lot of Vietnam veterans were hurting. Still hadn't resolved the problems of the war. Were still facing a lot of injustices and poor treatment. So I started putting together rap groups of Vietnam veterans. And from those rap groups we, I started the first Vietnam veteran organization in New Mexico, the Vietnam Veterans of New Mexico. Then I was asked by the VA to start, to head up their VA Outreach programs. And I helped them put it together. And then I went back to New Mexico and started the program there in New Mexico. After working for several years in the program I was asked to write a position paper for this person that was running for governor. I did. And when he was elected he asked me to head up the veterans affairs for the state of New Mexico. To head up the Veterans Service Commission. Which I did, until the end of this last year, December 31st. And now I’m in the process of putting together a veteran owned company and we're going to be exporting chili products to, throughout the states. And hopefully internationally.

 

This is the transcript of the second interview conducted 22 May of 1991 after Mr. Rocco came back on active duty during Desert Shield/Desert Storm.

 

Interviewer: Mr. Rocco, why did you come back on active duty?

Mr Rocco: Well, I kind of missed the military and at that particular time I thought that we were, we were going to be in a full scale war in the Middle East and I felt that I could contribute in some way to the war effort. I felt that they needed experienced medics, experienced PA's, and that if I couldn't get to Saudi I could at least teach or talk to the medics here at Fort Sam.

Interviewer: You volunteered to come back on active duty.

Mr Rocco: I volunteered. When I called they were asking for PAs because they were short of PAs to backfill the positions of the PAs that were going to Saudi and I told them that I was willing to work at the troop medical clinic if I was given the leeway to talk to the troops in the afternoon and to do what I could to motivate the young medics.

Interviewer: Mr. Rocco, when you came back on active duty and you began working in the troop medical clinic at Fort Sam Houston what was your impression of the young soldiers that you treated and the other Non Commissioned Officers and medical personnel that you worked with in the dispensary?

Mr Rocco: Number one, as far as the troops, I think they're a higher grade caliber of troops than we had back in the 60's and 70's. One of the reasons for it is, number one, they're motivated. Number two, they're high school graduates. That means that they have some sort of inner discipline to complete what they start out to do. The young men that we had in the 60's and the 70's, most of them were dropouts, most of them were not motivated to serve. They had no choice of where they were being assigned. Most of them didn't want to be medics, and a lot of them didn't want to go to Vietnam. These people have made a choice and they have a commitment to that choice and they seem very proficient in what they're doing, wanting to learn. I don't see the problems that we had. I know that the Army reflects society, and at that particular time, in the 60's and early 70's, our society was really in a state of turmoil. People we were getting in were reflecting that turmoil, so discipline was very hard. Trying to motivate them to learn was very hard. I find that these young men today are just willing to learn, they want to learn, they want to be taught.

Interviewer: You've also been working outside the troop medical clinic and you've had many opportunities to interact with the Non Commissioned Officers of the AMEDD. You've been invited to speak at several of the conferences throughout the United States, the Health Services Command Senior NCO conference, which is the largest in the AMEDD, and some other ones, MRD and such as that. Interacting with the Non Commissioned Officers, since you've been back on active duty, what's your impression of them in the mid management and leadership?

Mr. Rocco: Again, I see the NCOs as being highly educated, have more technical competence. I believe they exhibit more compassion. They seem to know their job well, they seem to be able to lead. They seem to exhibit the values of leadership. That impressed me a lot. Again, came back from the old Army where we were taught through intimidation and harassment and the punishment sometimes could be very cruel if you messed up. Here they don't have to worry of spending 60% of their time with a problem soldier. If the soldier does not meet the qualifications of today's Army they get rid of him and they do it expeditiously so they're not tied down with dealing just with problem soldiers. Another thing is in our time if we were put in front of a computer we would probably go into shock because we were not taught that type of administration. I see that a lot of your NCOs today are not only college graduates but are computer literate. Again, they have the management know how and the leadership style that's needed.

Interviewer: Mr. Rocco, being in the PA program, and also graduating from the first class at the Academy of Health Sciences for PAs, you're now back on active duty, working as a PA, part-time you work on the staff of Health Services Command in that particular area. The PAs now are being considered for commissioning. It's most certainly going to come about. What's your feeling about PAs becoming commissioned? Are they going to lose something in changing rank as far as senior warrants, or is it beneficial that they go with the commissioning program?

Mr. Rocco: I think, career wise for them, it's a big leap. It's something that they've been wanting for a long time, they were promised this for a long time and they were not given it. We had a meeting with General Ledford at Fort Bragg at the Society of Army Physicians Assistants and he guaranteed that they would be commissioned before he gets out of the service. It's needed. Number one, they perform as General Medical Officers out there in the battalions. Many of them have gone on and developed specialty skills and yet they don't get the rewards of that training. When I went to the PA course you just, you received an Associate Degree after you completed the course. These young men have to have a BS degree before they start. Not only that, they have to go through OCS, they have to go through special training even before they're selected for the PA course, and then they've got two years of intensive training. So they've paid their dues and I think that they deserve to be commissioned. I think that they deserve to be commissioned and promoted in the same manner that most of your medical officers do.

Interviewer: Looking back again, since you've come on active duty, you being a Medal of Honor recipient, certainly you have a great amount of visibility that other people don't have, you've had the opportunity to interact with junior and senior officers. What's your impression with that particular element of the AMEDD?

Mr. Rocco: Number one, you know, I think back and I wish that before a person would be commissioned, and I know it's not, there's no reality in it, but I wish that it could be, is that they would spend one year as an enlisted person in the grades of E3 to E4, to get a better understanding of what their subordinates have to deal and have to go through. I think it would make them better officers, more well rounded. There's no question that they have the expertise in their fields and there's no question that they exhibit a lot of the leadership traits. But there's always been that dividing line between an enlisted and officers and I don't feel that it has to be there. I feel that respect can go both ways, it can go up as well as down. I see a lot of it going up, but I don't see enough of it going down. I think that in the old Army, again, the Second Lieutenant was taken under the wing of a Platoon Sergeant and the Platoon Sergeant used to teach him what was not taught to him in OCS and the various career courses. There's a lot that you can only teach by being there, it's not in books. I don't know if this is taking place, I don't see it. I still see that barrier between enlisted and officers. I don't know, I think we should get past that barrier. Does that answer your question?

Interviewer: Certainly. Mr. Rocco, you've talked to many of the courses since you've been on active duty, especially the 91A course, the young combat medics. As we all know, we turn out combat medics based on the needs either peace time or war time. Certainly in Desert Shield/Desert Storm the combat medic became very important again and moved to the front, and we turned them out. But you spoke to these courses. What do you tell these young combat medics?

Mr. Rocco: Number one, I tell them the truth. I tell them how it's going to be. I tell them if they fall asleep in class, or if they don't learn, especially the lifesaving steps and steps that they might need in combat, they're going to cause someone their lives or their limbs, and I give them examples. I use the example of this young medic in Vietnam that wrapped a young man's hand that had sustained white phosphorus burn. We didn't get him for two days. When I took the dressing off the young man his hand fell off. It was just eaten through the bone and meat and cauterizing nerves and arteries. When I tried to find that young medic he was gone. I told him the infantry will take care of a medic. They'll lose a squad trying to protect a good medic. At the same time they'll turn their back on a medic that has no compassion, is not competent and doesn't care. I also tell them that they'll be put in situations that they will not have any control over. Again, I relate some of the problems that I had as a young medic that it just blew me away when I was confronted with the horrendous, obscene situation of having a man blow his head off and not knowing what to do for him. They are going to be asked to perform like doctors, and yet they won't have that knowledge. They will carry the guilt of people they thought they could have saved, they'll carry it with them for the rest of their lives and they need to talk about it. In working with the Vietnam veteran counseling program after Vietnam some of the most severe mental problems that I’ve seen were from the Navy corpsmen, Force Recon medics, Army medics. These were the ones that had been exposed to a lot of trauma and they carried a lot of anger and a lot of guilt. It was very hard to get them to believe that they did the best they could and they need to let it go. So I tell, I said if you fall asleep in a class it might cost somebody their limbs or their lives, I say you're going to live with it, I say you can't forget that. And they look at me with their eyes open. And I’m telling them the truth.

Interviewer: Reality in respect to the experience that you've seen and gone through.

Mr. Rocco: It's reality.

Interviewer: You soon will leave active duty and, you know, again looking at the entire AMEDD as a whole, what's your impression as an organization? Is it run smoothly? You've been out there in the VA side of the house, you've come in, you've worked at the troop medical clinic, you've spoken to various courses, you've been into the inner workings of the AMEDD, at Health Services Command, the MACOM, what's your impression of the AMEDD as a total organization?

Mr. Rocco: As a total organization it's big, it's advanced beyond, you know, my wildest conception of it. I have been privileged to be in on some of the planning that takes place and the health support that they provide throughout the world, not only to the military but in South America and now in Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait. I see that at one time we could not depend on the reserves and the National Guard. I find that there's a lot of coordination being done so they're getting those medical units in really top shape now. They found out that they have to. I found out that there's a lot of interservice cooperation between the Navy, the Air Force. We're training some of the Navy medical people here, some of our people are being trained by the Air Force. We're starting to share resources and the reason for it is that we can't afford not to. We can't afford to duplicate services. There's going to be some changes. There's still a lot of what I see is deadwood in the higher echelons that are going to have to be cut. You're going to find the medical corps really getting down to the muscle and bones and they're going to carry those people that are essential to the services of the Army, and the ones that are non essential, and are good to have, but do not carry their load, I think you'll see them being phased out. Because right now it's like any other branch, they're fighting for their budget dollar and they're fighting to keep these medical support in the state of the arts medicine being continued, and they can't do that without cutting. So I see a lot of changes and a lot of it I think will be very positive.

Interviewer: Mr. Rocco, moving on to another subject. Certainly being, as you wear around your neck the nation's highest honor, the Medal of Honor, you also wear the Combat Medical Badge. How important is that Combat Medical Badge? I mean is there some definite purpose in that, I mean what does it mean? You obviously wear, as we said, the highest award that can be given, but you also wear that all the time on your uniform, as many of the combat medics do. Kind of give us your view of the Combat Medical Badge.

Mr. Rocco: Well, I had the Combat Medical Badge before I got the Medal of Honor, and the Combat Medical Badge is equivalent to the Combat Infantry Badge. This signifies to others that you have gone under fire and treated the wounded and injured. It's something that very few people have. The ones that do have it many times will have the Purple Heart along with it. It signifies to your peers that you've been there, you paid your dues, you've been exposed to combat and you know what you're doing. It's not given for the sake of it, like a lot of your medals are. To earn it you have to participate in operations where you receive hostile fire. It has to be documented that you treated people under fire. So that sets you, I believe, one step above the others because this is the epitome of what a medic is supposed to be, he's supposed to be a combat medic, and it proves that you are one.

Interviewer: Mr. Rocco, as you prepare to end, although a short span on active duty again, what would you want to convey to the AMEDD as a whole as you go back out in civilian life? What would you tell the entire populace of the AMEDD, as you go out the door?

Mr. Rocco: That's kind of hard. I would want them to keep the high standards of technical proficiency, but more than that I believe that they have to exhibit the values of compassion, of integrity, of caring not only for the sick and injured, but taking care of their people, the clerks, the secretaries, the ones that you don't hear about. They're the ones that make this whole medical department move and too many times I see that they're not really stroked, they're not really told that they're worthwhile. I'd like to see your civilian employees made to feel as they're part of a team, that they're part of the Army, they're part of the medical regiment instead of employees. I think when you stroke people you get their full potential. I think there's room for improvement.

Interviewer: Mr. Rocco, is there anything else you'd like to add to this interview?

Mr. Rocco:  I do. I'd just want to let you know, Ron, that the five months I’ve been here I’ve had a ball. These young troops have juiced me up. I like being with them, I like taking care of them and I wish I could have stayed on for a couple more years, [unclear] my memories of being here.

Interviewer: Mr. Rocco, I’d like to thank you on behalf of the Surgeon General and Commander of the Regiment for your participation in this oral history interview. As in the past you've done other interviews and certainly the information that you provided from a historical content has also been applicable to the young soldier that is coming on active duty and serving in the war zones today. Again, I wish to thank you and we wish you well in civilian life.

Mr. Rocco:  Thank you, Ron.