THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Wednesday, July 10, 1996 TAG: 9607090270 SECTION: MILITARY NEWS PAGE: A6 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: ALVA CHOPP, CORRESPONDENT LENGTH: 109 lines
He became a Marine Corps legend in Vietnam by delivering 93 confirmed sniper kills on the North Vietnamese, along with countless unconfirmed others.
Today, friends of Staff Sgt. Carlos Hathcock II believe he might be better remembered for saving lives during the war in Southeast Asia.
They have launched a letter-writing campaign to nominate the Virginia Beach gunnery sergeant for the Medal of Honor for his rescue of seven wounded Marines from a burning armored personnel carrier in September 1969.
Whether they succeed hangs in the balance this month: Hathcock is expected to be the subject of a review that could see him recommended for the Medal of Honor, the Navy Cross or other decorations.
Hathcock, now 54, was riding in a convoy with counterintelligence officers and other Marines when their vehicle rolled over a 500-pound mine and exploded in a fireball at a landing zone near the South Vietnamese town of Que-son.
Severely burned, his clothes in flames, Hathcock managed to pull seven fellow Marines from the wreckage before another survivor doused him.
He received the Purple Heart, but stories vary among his supporters about why he was not nominated for other decorations.
Edward Hyland, a Marine first lieutenant and senior officer on the personnel carrier that day, feels a personal responsibility for the oversight.
``When asked about a medal, Hathcock insisted he didn't want any award,'' Hyland remembers, ``that he was just doing his job. So I respected his wishes and did not write it up at that time.''
Over the years Hyland, now living in Arizona, would remember the explosion, Hathcock's burning uniform, Hathcock's face as the sergeant pulled him to safety. Hyland suffered burns over 40 percent of his body and had his left arm amputated at the shoulder as a result of his injuries, but he credits Hathcock with saving his life.
Uncomfortable with not having nominated Hathcock for a medal, Hyland eventually asked congressmen and senators to intervene on the Marine's behalf.
But too much time had passed: Applications for medals close three years after the incidents for which they were requested. All attempts to reopen the investigation were turned away by the Marine Corps.
Then came the National Defense Authorization Act of 1996.
The bill opened a one-year window in which veterans could resubmit applications for various decorations they might deserve, but did not receive during their service.
It covered American conflicts from World War II to the El Savadoran civil war. And for Vietnam veterans, it included the Medal of Honor.
Since the bill's February passage into law, the Marine Corps' Washington-based Military Awards Branch has received 56 requests from senators and congressmen that Hathcock's deeds be investigated, along with countless letters supporting his nomination.
Hathcock's nomination is expected to go before a Board of Officers for review this month. If approved, it will proceed to the Secretary of the Navy, who can approve the action for the Navy's highest award, the Navy Cross, or a lesser medal - or recommend that it be submitted to President Bill Clinton for the Medal of Honor.
``Approval for the Medal of Honor is not taken lightly,'' said Fred Anthony, the Awards Branch's head. ``We conduct extensive research to ensure that the recipient is eligible.''
Only 180 Medals of Honor have been awarded to Marines during the period from World War II to the Vietnam war, Anthony said. Of those, 120 were awarded posthumously.
Hathcock's legendary exploits as a combat sniper have spawned countless magazine and newspaper articles, a book - ``Marine Sniper: 93 Confirmed Kills'' - and, loosely, the movie ``Sniper.''
Besides his typical grunt-style crewcut, there's little about Hathcock to betray his past today: Slightly built, battling multiple sclerosis, he is unable to hold a rifle, and spends most of his days watching television in his room.
The walls around him are covered with accolades won in nearly 20 years in the Corps, however, and a good many others can be found elsewhere: the Carlos Hathcock Award is presented annually to the best marksman in the Marine Corps, a Corps library in Washington bears his name, and competitive shooters often bandy his name about as the world's once-best.
Still, if not for his Purple Heart, his role in the Que-son rescue would be officially unrecognized.
Since word got out about the medal nomination, friends and fans from across the country have called his home to offer encouragement to Hathcock and his wife, Jo.
They've received thousands of calls and letters over the past few months and their home is filled with stacks of papers and files they've accumulated.
``I would see people being rewarded for acts that to me are nothing like what Carlos did,'' said Hyland. ``If Carlos is awarded the medal, I'll feel an enormous amount of pride that another Marine was recognized and personal satisfaction knowing I had something to do with it.''
Ernie Padgett, president of the Virginia Shooting Sports Association, met Hathcock only three years ago, but six months later began supporting the medal campaign.
``It just seemed obvious to a lot of people that Carlos deserved the Medal of Honor,'' he said. ``I contacted two of the men on the amtrac that day and their accounts were very clear. All he had to do was turn and jump to safety and he would've been OK.
``But once safely away from the explosion, Carlos went back in to search for more victims. One reason I'm supporting this cause is that I want young kids today to know about an honest-to-God hero.''
Hathcock doesn't see himself that way. His response to all the attempts on his behalf is simple: ``If it happens, it happens,'' he says. ``it can't change things, and I'll go on living the same way I am.
``I must admit, though, that I'm in awe at all the people who are supporting me,'' he said. ``And I would be really happy if it happens.'' ILLUSTRATION: Photo
D. KEVIN ELLIOTT/The Virginian-Pilot
Carlos Hathcock II, now 54, pulled seven colleagues from a burning
vehicle in Vietnam in 1969. At the time, the Marine didn't want any
medals, and his senior officer took him at his word. But that could
change this month.
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