A Former Marijuana Smuggler and Vietnam War Hero Seeks Greater Recognition From His Government

When Juan Tercero made the decision that quietly would define his life, he was wearing a T-shirt, green U.S. Army boxer shorts, and rubber shower thongs.

Specialist Four Tercero, known as Tony, was chilling at Camp Eagle, a military base near the ancient city of Hue, Vietnam.

It was November 20, 1968, and Tercero was ready to go home. The 20-year-old Arizonan had survived his yearlong tour relatively unscathed.

Months earlier, shrapnel from a missile had landed in Tercero's back. But his injury healed quickly and he had spent the following months in country as a member of Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRPS).

Officially, Tercero was with F Company 58th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division — the Screaming Eagles. He was a "Lurp," his unit's colloquial name.

Lurps were part of an elite outfit that would sneak deep into enemy territory and spy for days at a time on, say, North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troop movement.

The camouflaged soldiers blended into the dense jungle and mountain terrain and usually wouldn't engage in combat unless they had to.

It was risky, but often rewarding duty.

Tercero was set to leave Camp Eagle the next day, the first step on his way back to the States.

He was a skinny, dark-skinned kid from the streets of Phoenix who usually wore a wry grin that implied, "I know something that you don't" — which probably was true.

A "scrounger from way back," as he refers to himself, Tercero knew how to find the best black-market deals on just about anything, which made him popular at the base.

He had enlisted in the Army as an 18-year-old, after stepping into a recruiting station in downtown Phoenix on a whim. The military promised an opportunity to escape a dangerously unstructured life, one that seemed destined to include time at the Arizona State Prison.

Indeed, the Army proved an excellent fit for Tercero, drawing out of him a new sense of purpose and a deep loyalty to his band of Lurp brothers.

That purpose showed itself on November 20, 1968, during a daring rescue mission atop a remote hill in the Ruong Ruong Valley, near the demilitarized zone.

Because of what happened on that bloody mission, in which four soldiers died and numerous others were wounded, Tony Tercero's company became one of the most decorated outfits in the history of the 101st Airborne.

In descending order of military significance, two soldiers won (one posthumously) Distinguished Service Crosses, six won Silver Stars, and two helicopter pilots won Distinguished Flying Crosses.

Fifteen soldiers earned Purple Hearts.

Two others, including Tercero, won Bronze Stars with the "V" device for valor. In awarding that medal, the Army said Tercero had "distinguished himself during a mission to rescue a long-range patrol near Hue. When the patrol became surrounded by an enemy platoon, the company commander called his unit, requesting volunteers to be dropped into the area to save the team.

"Without hesitation," the Army's report said, "Specialist Tercero grabbed his weapon and ran to the helicopter pad . . . The thick jungle canopy was too dense to allow a normal landing and the [enemy] was everywhere, and several men were wounded on the [rescue effort].

"Specialist Tercero ran up the hill about 100 meters and linked with the besieged team. He immediately took charge of the radio and reported the link-up and the situation. He then directed the other men to the best defensive positions and assisted in extracting the casualties.

"Through his valorous efforts, the lives of the remaining team members were saved, [and] the volunteers were positioned . . . Specialist Tercero's personal bravery and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of military service."

All of it was accurate.

But here's the rub: Several ex-soldiers continue to insist four decades later that Tony Tercero deserved far more than a Bronze Star.

"Most of us are aware of three examples of spectacular heroism that day," says Kenn Miller, a Southern California resident who served with Tercero and later authored a well-regarded novel based on Miller's Vietnam experiences, Tiger, the Lurp Dog.

"Those three examples are Billy Walkabout, Riley Cox, and Tony Tercero. Tony totally led the rescue mission on that hill, and he should have won a Distinguished Service Cross for what he did. Everyone who was there knows it. But medals often don't reflect reality. With Tony leaving Vietnam the next day, maybe it was out of sight, out of mind. The Bronze Star is nothing to sneeze at, but he deserved much more."

The Bronze Star was awarded 170,626 times during the Vietnam War, according to a U.S. military Web site.

By comparison, 21,634 Silver Stars, 848 Distinguished Service Crosses, and 161 Medals of Honor were awarded during 'Nam.

Tony Tercero didn't communicate with anyone from that unforgettable November 1968 mission for almost two decades.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin