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‘We weren't given much chance for survival’: Inside Operation Tailwind and the next Medal of Honor

Medal of Honor Recipient Capt. Gary "Mike" Rose (ret.) speaks about what it means to receive the award.

Medal of Honor Recipient Capt. Gary "Mike" Rose (ret.) speaks about what it means to receive the award, decades after the events he is recognized for. Rose will receive the award in a ceremony at the White House Monday, Oct. 23.

Retired Capt. Gary “Mike” Rose never thought he‘d share the story of Operation Tailwind with anyone, let alone go to the White House and receive the Medal of Honor from the president of the United States.

As a young man, Rose signed a stack of paperwork saying he’d never utter a word about that four-day mission deep into Laos to gather intelligence about the lower reaches of the Ho Chi Minh trail and create a diversion against the North Vietnamese Army.

“You read this thing, they put it in front of you, some intel officer — and it says that under penalty of 500 years in prison and $40 million in fines, we’ll bury you under 40 feet of concrete if you ever acknowledge [this],” Rose, now 70, told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday.

But now, his story and the story of the 16-man team that carried out the mission from Sept. 11 to 14, 1970, will get another chapter on Monday when the retired artillery officer receives the military’s highest valor award.

A former Special Forces medic with Military Assistance Command, Vietnam-Studies and Observations Group — a unit that officially didn’t exist, Rose said — Rose said he never discussed that mission or anything else he did in Vietnam until the late 1990s, when the Army declassified Operation Tailwind.

“I just determined, well, if anybody asked me, I was going to be a mail clerk during the Vietnam War,” he said.

Rose and 11 of his team members from the mission, along with Air Force and Marine pilots who aided them, will be at the White House on Monday to hear President Trump read aloud the description of his heroics.

“We were going into an area that the American troops had never been in before,”said retired Lt. Col. Eugene McCarley, the captain who had commanded the mission. “There was absolutely no intelligence.”

Deadly battle

Rose, then a sergeant, knew that something big was happening, he said, because the Green Berets and their Montagnard allies were doubling up on ammunition. They were taking fire even before setting down, he remembered, and the next four days were relentless.

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.

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.

“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.”

Of the more than 100 men on the mission and dozens injured, only three lost their lives.

“I wasn’t concerned with what the NVA were doing because that wasn’t my focus. I knew that the other guys were going to take care of the perimeter,” Rose said. “You don’t concern yourself about getting hurt or killed, because if you focus on that, you probably will get hurt or killed.”

When a medevac finally came on the last day, the Air Force pilot flying it told McCarley that if they didn’t get everyone out right then, no one was getting out.

“We weren’t given much chance for survival,” McCarley said. “Real, definite plans to extract us were never in the making until [MACV-SOG commander] Col. [John] Sadler stepped in and said, ‘These men have got to come out and I need your helicopters.’ “

Recognition, decades later

McCarley went on to retire from Special Forces, and Rose became an artillery officer, retiring in 1987.

Neither spoke of what they’d done together, even to others who were there, they said.

“Tailwind, to me, it was just one of many assignments I had with me in my three years in Vietnam,” McCarley said. “I think we served our country well.”

But it never sat right with him that Rose’s original Medal of Honor nomination was downgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross.

“I was terribly disappointed, to be honest,” McCarley said.

But he continued to work on behalf of Rose and his other soldiers for decades, he added.

The effort got a big boost in 1998, when an erroneous report on the operation, by CNN and Time, pushed the Army to declassify the mission, recognizing MACV-SOG’s existence.

In 2013, McCarley called Rose to tell him that a veteran advocate named Neil Throne wanted to help him upgrade his DSC.

Three years later, Congress waived the five-year limit on Rose’s nomination, which allowed him to receive the medal so many years after the action.

“For the Vietnam era veteran, I think with this medal ... regardless of what capacity you served in or what service you were in, it honors what they have done,” Rose said.

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