Finally, Bronze Star burns bright

  • Article by: MARY LYNN SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 24, 2011 - 11:45 PM

A South Vietnamese army officer's 1968 combat heroism will be honored Friday in St. Paul.

Dai Vinh held a portrait based on his South Vietnamese army ID from about 1969.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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The war scars are usually covered. The stories about Vietnam are rarely told. But for more than 30 years, Dai Vinh has struggled to recover a Bronze Star medal left behind when he fled Vietnam with a wife and young child by his side.

Today he'll finally retrieve the recognition of his bravery under fire, a reminder of a youth spent fighting in the jungle and, more important, a piece of family history to hand to his two sons. U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., will present Vinh, 65, with the Bronze Star and the certificate for bravery at a ceremony in Franken's St. Paul office. Standing nearby will be his sons, Phuc and Michael.

"When my son heard [about the ceremony], he said he would come," Vinh said. "He lives in Boston." Vinh's eyes glistened as he fought back tears. "He said, 'I'm proud of you, Daddy.'"

The sons knew little about their father's war years or the 30-year quest for his medal and certificate. "I didn't find out until three weeks ago that he got a Bronze Star," Phuc Vinh said. "He bottles a lot of stuff inside him and rarely talks about the war. ... When he received this medal, he was 24 or 25. ... It's just a crazy accomplishment."

Dai Vinh was 18 when he joined the South Vietnamese army in 1963. A year later, he was an officer, leading men into battle against the Viet Cong and working alongside American soldiers. But by 1975, the United States had pulled out of Vietnam. "After 12 years of fighting, what did I have left? Nothing," Vinh said.

He and his family fled Vietnam in 1975, finding their way to Minnesota. Vinh became a U.S. citizen, raised a family and owns a nail salon in Richfield. He pushed the war memories deep within but was haunted by the loss of the Bronze Star certificate that validated his heroism.

All he had from those years were the military decorations he had worn on his uniform, but as he settled into his new country, even the ribbons were missing until his son accidentally found them in a dresser drawer a year ago.

The ribbons tell the tale of his war years. There's a small star for the Purple Heart awarded him by the Vietnamese army. But it's the scars and a large divot left where a bullet pierced his left calf that remind him of 1966, when he and his unit were attacked and separated. For days, Vinh lay in the brush, bleeding, surrounded so closely by foes that an enemy soldier relieved himself next to him. Vinh fashioned a tourniquet to stem his bleeding, hoping to live. But after three days, he made peace with death. And then a glimmer of hope arrived: U.S. planes and choppers flew overhead. But he also knew he would have to survive the heavy bombing that nearly always preceded ground forces. "If I get hit, I'm done," Vinh recalled. "I thought, 'Man, I'm going to die by friendly fire.' But I'm lucky. I don't get hit."

Soon the sandaled feet of the Viet Cong were replaced by the boots of U.S. soldiers, who carried him to safety.

But it's the story behind the scarlet and blue striped ribbon representing the Bronze Star that makes Vinh proud.

Heroic efforts

The memory of that battle is vivid: It's September 1968, and Vinh is meeting with his American "advisers" when enemy soldiers launch a heavy mortar attack. The soldiers Vinh commands are 100 yards away. He needs to get to them. "In the field, the commander's voice is important," he explained. "If they don't see or hear you, they run. And then they die. Americans die."

Ignoring the pleas of the American soldiers that he wait for U.S. reinforcements, Vinh runs to his men. "Yes, I was scared," he said. "But I had no choice. If you don't go, people die."

When the shooting stopped, the enemy had retreated and the United States awarded Vinh the Bronze Star.

Decades later and nearly a world away, Vinh doesn't fret over losing the bronze hardware. It's the certificate he longs to hold. "I did a good job for my country," Vinh said. "The ribbons and the medals are nothing," Vinh said. "The certificate is the key."

So Vinh buttonholed military officers, veterans officials and even a lawyer in hopes of trying to replace the certificate that documents his act of "courage and outstanding leadership" and "heroic efforts." "Because of the language barrier, he usually asked Mike and I to help with a lot of important things," Phuc Vinh said. "But this is one of the things that he did on his own. I didn't have any idea about this part of his life. He struggled [to get this certificate] on his own."

About two months ago, Dai Vinh asked Franken's office for help.

The fact that he wasn't a U.S. citizen during the war complicated the search, said Marc Kimball, a Franken spokesman. Franken's staff took the limited information they got from Dai Vinh and the Army dug deep, Kimball said. On Friday, Franken not only will hand Dai Vinh the coveted certificate but will also give him the Bronze Star medal.

"It's always important that these really brave men and women who were honored ... get the recognition they deserve for their bravery," Franken said Thursday. "[Dai Vinh] saved a lot of American lives."

As Franken presents the medal, Dai Vinh's sons will look on proudly; his 6-year-old granddaughter is likely to be in awe and wonder. "She's very excited," said Phuc Vinh. "She started to ask me all these questions about the medal and what he received it for. But I didn't have a lot of answers. I didn't know. I said, 'You're going to have to ask ong noi [grandfather],'" he said. "I would like to hear the stories myself."

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788

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