Just after dawn on November 8, 1965, a company of paratroopers patrolled the rain forest northwest of the Dong Nai River. Their task: a search and destroy mission to clear nearby hills of Communist insurgents.
For two tense hours, they prowled through the shadows of the triple canopy jungle.
Suddenly, the hillside ahead erupted as several hundred unseen hostiles poured torrents of machine gun fire down on the badly outnumbered Americans.
The first barrage mowed down everyone in the lead squad and dozens behind them. Diving for cover, the survivors returned fire while their wounded comrades lay bleeding and dying around them.
Disobeying orders to stay down, a medic crept among the fallen. Lawrence Joel bandaged wounds, shouted encouragement, and inserted IVs to replace lost blood. Despite relentless enemy fire, he repeatedly rose to a kneeling position, holding plasma bottles high to help lifesaving fluids drain into his patients’ veins.
When a Viet Cong bullet tore through his calf, Joel bandaged the gash, gave himself a shot of morphine and used a makeshift crutch to hobble to the next patient. Having treated the fallen in his own platoon, he floundered forward, into the teeth of the crossfire, in search of more men in need.
When another bullet drilled deep into his thigh, Joel just ignored it and kept working. After he had used up most of his medical supplies, he found a gasping soldier with a sucking chest wound. Improvising, the medic used an empty plastic bag to stop the hemorrhaging.
Once reinforcements arrived, Joel grabbed a fresh first aid kit from a wounded medic and kept working. The dense overgrowth made it difficult to evacuate most patients until the end of the intense 24-hour battle. Many of the wounded needed constant attention to keep death at bay.
Finally, the Viet Cong began to withdraw, having lost about 400 men. Fifty Americans died that day, but Joel’s efforts saved the lives of at least 13 men. The Army awarded him a Purple Heart and a Silver Star for his valor.
After three months recuperating in Saigon and Tokyo hospitals, Joel came home, reunited with his wife and children in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. By then a 20-year veteran of the armed forces, he returned to Vietnam for another tour of duty the following year.
On March 9, 1967, Joel became the first medic to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.
In his remarks that day, President Lyndon B. Johnson drew parallels between Joel’s selflessness and his country’s mission in Vietnam and the world:
“We have come here today to honor the courage of a very brave soldier. His was a very special kind of courage — the unarmed heroism of compassion and service to others. The conduct of Specialist 6 Lawrence Joel reflects, I believe, the role America itself must play on every battlefield of freedom.
“In the face of death, in the fury of ambush, he risked his life that other men might live. Wounded twice, Specialist Joel crawled for more than 12 hours, through unceasing enemy fire to bring others of his fellow men to safety.
“In those dark, dangerous hills, with the enemy only 30 feet away, he sustained the faith that our fighting men place in the medic — their constant comrade, always ready to back their courage and to bind their wounds.
“Today, in this quiet American garden, we acknowledge our great debt to Specialist Joel for his great dedication in that savage action.
“It is a terrible truth that suffering is so often the price of freedom. But freedom is indivisible. To protect it in distant Asia is to maintain it here in America.
“The willingness of Specialist Joel to die for freedom in the remote Vietnam province of Bien Hoa indicates, as nothing else could, the willingness of his country to sacrifice, to stand, and to persist in freedom’s cause.
“As we salute the valor of this soldier, we salute the best in the American tradition.
“Just as he sustained those who fought for freedom in War Zone D, so shall we.
“Just as he bound up their wounds, so shall we.
“Just as he cared for his fellow man, so does all America care for those with whom we share this planet.
“America, too, stands behind the fighter who is struggling to prevent subjugation; America is willing to make sacrifices in order that all men may know the joy of peace and security; America, too, is dedicated to the highest of all principles — that of serving mankind in its endless struggle toward a better, a fuller life of dignity, devoid of tyranny.
“Specialist Joel, with this medal comes your Nation’s enduring gratitude. We thank you for what you’ve done. You stand as a symbol — reminding all of us of our continuing responsibilities as citizens and our continuing obligations as a nation. If we are worthy of your sacrifice and the sacrifice of those of your comrades, then we shall never forget them.”
Later in 1967, his racially divided hometown came together to honor his valor with a large military parade.
The medic overcame his shyness to make a number of public appearance for the Army, but his marriage fell apart. He returned to Vietnam in 1969, where he earned a Bronze Star for heroic service during a mortar attack.
In 1973, Joel returned stateside and retired after 27 years of active service. He worked for the Veteran’s Administration in Connecticut until 1982, when he moved home to Winston-Salem. Afflicted with depression, Joel died in 1984 of complications from diabetes.