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Medal of Honor recipient, POW Sgt. Maj. Jon Robert Cavaiani dies

Jul. 31, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Army Sgt. Maj. Jon Robert Cavaiani, right, and retired Army Sgt. 1st Class James Shorten at the Special Operations Association Reunion in October 2012.
Army Sgt. Maj. Jon Robert Cavaiani, right, and retired Army Sgt. 1st Class James Shorten at the Special Operations Association Reunion in October 2012. (Photo courtesy of James Shorten)
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Jon Robert Cavaiani (Photo courtesy of James Shorten)

Medal of Honor recipient and prisoner-of-war Army Sgt. Maj. Jon Robert Cavaiani has died at age 70 after a battle with cancer, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

Cavaiani was a “true patriot,” said Brig. Gen. Darsie Rogers, commanding general of United States Army Special Forces Command (Airborne).

“Jon Cavaiani epitomized what it means to be Special Forces and don the Green Beret through his valor and commitment to soldiers and the mission,” Rogers said in a statement to Military Times. “The example set through his resolve and courage lives on in Special Forces soldiers today, we mourn his loss and vow to continue his legacy.”

Cavaiani was awarded the nation’s highest military honor for his bravery in defending the “Hickory Hill” radio relay site in Vietnam starting on June 4, 1971. He “unhesitatingly” volunteered to remain on the ground as his platoon was being evacuated, directing helicopters as they picked up his comrades, according to his award citation.

The next morning, the enemy attacked in force in an attempt to wipe out the U.S. troops who had not been evacuated. They came in two waves, saturating the relay site with machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire and continuously lobbing grenades at the Americans. Cavaiani covered the rest of his platoon as they pulled out.

“With one last courageous exertion, Staff Sgt. Cavaiani recovered a machine gun, stood up, completely exposing himself to the heavy enemy fire directed at him, and began firing the machine gun in a sweeping motion along the two ranks of advancing enemy soldiers,” his citation states. “Through Staff Sergeant Cavaiani's valiant efforts with complete disregard for his safety, the majority of the remaining platoon members were able to escape. While inflicting severe losses on the advancing enemy force, Staff Sergeant Cavaiani was wounded numerous times.”

Cavaiani was captured after the attack and held as a POW until March 27, 1973. He died on Tuesday morning, a friend of his family said.

Those who knew Cavaiani describe him as a humble man and a legend in Special Forces.

Retired Army Sgt. 1st Class James Shorten served on a mission with Cavaiani in 1970. When the enemy discovered their position, Shorten called for a helicopter to pull out the five Special Forces soldiers. As the helicopter was coming in, Cavaiani radio-triangulated the enemy and called in airstrikes.

When the helicopter arrived, it only dropped four ropes, so Shorten and Cavaiani had to double-up.

“When they took off, Jon starting shooting off a storm at the enemy and we started spinning in circles, and I kept yelling at him, ‘Come on Jon, stop!’ He just said, ‘Come on man, I’m just having some fun.’ He was like that. He was just relaxed, kicked back, always joking around. Just a real nice guy.”

Former Army Capt. Robert Noe served at Hickory Hill a year before it was overrun and got to know Cavaiani after the war. Noe doesn’t recall anyone whoever met Cavaiani who didn’t like him.

“You could approach him and you would swear up and down that he was your brother,” Noe said.

While Cavaiani wore his Medal of Honor with pride, he did not believe it made him stand out from other service members, Noe said.

“He wore it as a badge of honor for all those who served,” Noe said. “Like he told me a couple times: ‘This is not my medal, it’s their medal; I’m just wearing it.’”

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