If he hadn’t wanted to avoid the Marine Corps so badly, retired Capt. Gary Michael ”Mike” Rose might never have been on the secret 1970 operation that earned him the military’s highest award for valor.
On Sept. 11, 1970, a few minutes into the helicopter ride from his southeastern Vietnam base, then-Spc. Rose knew that they weren’t in Vietnam anymore.
“You get on a helicopter and you fly for 45 minutes, an hour west — when you know by helicopter the border’s only five minutes away — you know you’re in Laos,” Rose told Army Times in an Aug. 28 phone interview. ”It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out.”
What followed was Operation Tailwind, a four-day battle in support of the Royal Lao Army, creating a diversion aimed at North Vietnamese Army troops.
But Rose didn’t know that at the time, he said, because the mission was classified, and it would remain that way until the late ‘90s.
Most of what he knows about those days, he added, he learned after 1998, when a joint report by CNN and Time magazine — which was later discredited — discussed the operation publicly for the first time.
Now, almost 50 years after the battle and nearly a decade since his unit’s actions were brought out of the dark, the White House announced Wednesday that Rose would receive the Medal of Honor in an Oct. 23 ceremony.
‘Need to know’
Southern California native Rose, then 20, walked into an Army recruiter’s office in early 1967, he said, with a particular goal.
The draft board had been pulling numbers left and right in the Los Angeles area, sending pretty much all of those young men to the sea services, he recalled.
“I was in the North Hollywood draft board region,” he said. ”I knew that they were drafting into the Marine Corps and the Navy, and those were not my two choices.”
His father had been drafted into the Marines during World War II, he said, and ”he suggested that you don’t want to be a draftee in the Marine Corps.”
Rather than roll the dice, Rose decided to volunteer for the Army and head off to Fort Ord, California, to learn how to be a grunt. Thanks to high aptitude test scores, jump school and Special Forces training followed, and by October 1968, he was a Special Forces medic.
He re-enlisted for the chance to pick where he wanted to go, settling on supporting the 46th Special Forces Company in Thailand, where they were training local soldiers and border police.
“I thought, ‘Thailand, that sounds like a pretty good, exotic place to go.’ Which, in my mind now, as I look back, was really good experience,” he said. “It made me better prepared for when I went to Vietnam.”
After a year, he called up his assignment coordinator — a woman known as Mrs. Alexander — and told her he was ready for Vietnam. She placed him with the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group, 5th Special Forces Group, based in Kontum.
Rose earned his first Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with ”V” device during a June 1970 mission, but in general spent his time tending to local Vietnamese and providing back-up for others’ missions.
In mid-September, he got a second mission briefing.
“In those days — and I’m sure it’s true today — you’re only told what you need to know to be able to prepare and go out and do your job on that mission,” he said. “So I was told that we were going to an area to create a diversion for another operation that was going on.”
What he did realize, though, was that it was going to be ugly.
“I noted that all the guys that I was going with, including [allied fighters from the indigenous Vietnamese] Montagnards, were loading up with a lot more ammunition than they normally did,” he said. “I’m fairly intelligent, and I deduced that if you normally go in with 200 rounds and you’re going in with four, something’s probably going to be up.”
Once they crossed the border, he said, he can vividly remember the popcorn-popping sound of rounds hitting the helicopter.
According to the battle narrative, Rose and a company-sized element were dropped 70 kilometers into NVA-controlled Laos. Casualties came quickly.
“One of the wounded was trapped outside the company defensive perimeter,” the narrative reads. “Sgt. Rose, engaging the enemy, rushed to get the wounded Soldier. Sgt. Rose rendered expert medical treatment and stabilized the wounded Soldier, and carried the man through the heavy gunfire back to the company defensive area.”
The company pushed deeper into Laos, and Rose treated each casualty along the way.
“The fire becoming so intense, Sgt. Rose had to crawl from position to position to treat the wounded,” according to the narrative. ”As he moved, Sgt. Rose gave words of encouragement and directed the fires of the inexperienced and terrified Vietnamese and Montagnard troops.”
He was first wounded on Sept. 12, day two. A rocket-propelled grenade exploded as he was dragging a wounded soldier, spraying shrapnel into his back and leg and crippling his foot.
He used a stick as a crutch for the next two days.
“I suspect what was going through my head was trying to take care of the wounded,” Rose said. “We were just busy. I had two that were split from the hip to the knee, down to the femur. I made sure they were breathing, no shock, then stop the bleeding.”
At one point, a medevac tried to land to take away the wounded, but enemy fire was so intense that it had to back off. But it quickly succumbed to damage, crashing a few miles away, where the crew were safely recovered.
“I wasn’t frantic,” Rose said. “By the time I got there, I’d been three years in the Army, and I’d been trained, trained, trained, trained.”
With over half of the company wounded, Rose lashed together bamboo to make litters.
“Despite his own painful and debilitating wounds, Sgt. Rose never took time to eat, rest, or care for his own wounds while caring for his fellow Soldiers,” the narrative said.
On the last night, with the company surrounded, Rose dug trenches and moved from casualty to casualty to treat wounds. The next morning, they learned that 500 North Vietnamese were closing in on their position, and helicopters were on the way to extract them.
“The NVA, close on the heels of the company at the landing zone, causing even more casualties among the allied personnel,” the narrative reads. “Sgt. Rose moved under the intense enemy fire of the assaulting NVA, completely exposing himself, to retrieve the allied dead and wounded, and return them to the company defensive perimeter.”
He boarded the last helicopter out, but before settling in for the trip home, treated the wounds of the helicopter’s Marine door gunner, who had taken fire during the extraction.
Minutes later, the helicopter crashed, smoking and leaking fuel.
“Sgt. Rose, knowing the helicopter could explode at any moment, worked quickly while ignoring his own injuries, to pull wounded and unconscious men from the wreckage, saving lives,” according to the narrative. ”Moving the wounded and unconscious men a safe distance away from the smoldering wreckage, Sgt. Rose continued to professionally administer medical treatment to the injured personnel.”
A second helicopter came to retrieve them, but Rose doesn’t remember getting on it, he said.
“When you sit down and you start talking about these things, you cause people to have little memories, vignettes, little visions,” Rose said. “The one thing that we’re all agreed upon is that starting with the crash, none of us were operating on all cylinders. It’s such a blur.”
All told, according to the battle narrative, only three men died during the four-day onslaught.
Back to work
Rose’s memory picks up again back at Doc To, he said, where he grabbed a shower and a change of clothes before seeing a surgeon to get the shrapnel removed from his foot.
Then he had some chow and a couple beers, took a picture for posterity, and debriefed with the group’s intelligence shop before sacking out.
“I got up the next morning, put my uniform on and went back to the dispensary,” he said.
Soon after, he was meant to go to the field, but his platoon leader held him back.
“I said, ‘Why, sir?” Rose recalled. “And he said, because you’re being put in for an award and we don’t want you in the field right now.”
He didn’t know at the time, but he had been nominated for the Medal of Honor. It was downgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross, which he received in January 1971.
Three months later, he was back home and at the Army’s Spanish language school in Washington, D.C., preparing for a tour with 8th Special Forces Group in Panama.
It was at that point, he said, that he decided to go to Officer Candidate School, because extending his contract with the Army would allow him to bring his new wife, Margaret, with him to Central America.
Rose became an artillery officer in December 1972, where he spent the last 15 of his 20 years in the Army. After retiring in 1987, he moved on to the manufacturing industry, where he wrote manuals and designed training programs, settling in Huntsville, Alabama.
In the meantime, his time in Laos, which had been dubbed Operation Tailwind, became front page news. In 1998, a joint venture by CNN and Time described the mission as a raid on a Laotian village to kill American defectors holed up there, and alleged U.S. troops used sarin gas on civilians.
The Defense Department pushed back on the claims and CNN retracted the story. But in the aftermath, soldiers who had been a part of the now-declassified mission began pushing for recognition of their brothers’ heroism.
In 2013, he said, Rose got a call from retired Col. Eugene McCarley, who’d been company commander back in 1971. He said a guy named Neil Thorne, who worked with veterans of the MACV-SOG, wanted to put in a packet to upgrade his DSC.
“He worked on it for over four years,” Rose said. “Every time he would call for information, I would give it to him.”
Last year, then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter approved the award, and Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Alabama, and then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, wrote Rose’s name into the National Defense Authorization Act, waiving the requirement that the Medal of Honor be awarded within five years of the designated action.
It was the same piece of legislation that opened the door to the Medal of Honor for former Spc. Jim McCloughan, who received his award on July 31, more than 48 years after the fact.
On Aug. 3, Rose finally got his own call.
A collective medal
Rose picked up the phone that afternoon to a voice that asked him to hold for the president of the United States.
“Margaret tells me I immediately came to attention, my feet at a 40-degree angle, my fist curled to my palm. My thumbs went along the seam of my trousers,” he said. ”And she said the only thing that was missing was a uniform and being in a formation some place.”
Rose has asked that not only his fellow MACV-SOG veterans be included in his ceremony, but that the White House reaches out to the Marines and Air Force personnel who supported the mission, particularly the A-1E Skyraider and AH-1 Cobra pilots who were there.
“To me, this medal is a collective medal, and it honors all those men who fought. A lot of them were injured and killed in that operation,” he said. “It represents the fact that North Vietnamese Army troops were tied up along the Ho Chi Minh Trail because of what we were doing in Laos and Cambodia.”
“I’m confident, without those 50,000 troops down in the south, that the names on that [Vietnam memorial] wall – instead of being 58,000 might be 100,000 or more,” he added.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.