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Veterans Day: Military Health System Honors Medical Valor Under Fire

Image of Veterans Day: Military Health System Honors Medical Valor Under Fire. Former U.S. Army Spc. 5th Class medic Clarence Sasser recounting actions in Vietnam on Jan. 10, 1968, that led to his receiving the Medal of Honor and his thoughts on that honor. From an undated video. (courtesy: Library of Congress)

This Veterans Day 2023, the Military Health System honors military medical personnel who went above and beyond the call of duty by sharing their stories of valor. Some made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country.

This story highlights three military medical professionals awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military award for valor. They are representative of the more than 3,500 stories of heroism found at the National Medal of Honor Museum.

Additionally profiled is a WWII U.S. Army nurse in the Pacific theater who received the Joint Service Achievement Medal in 2020 when she was 100 years’ old from then-U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley. Her service paved the way for women to join the military.

U.S. Army Spc. 5th Class Clarence Eugene Sasser, Vietnam War

Sasser, a U.S. Army combat medic, was in a company on a reconnaissance mission in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam on Jan. 10,1968, that came under a furious barrage of fire from the North Vietnamese. During the first few minutes of the engagement, more than 30 men suffered casualties, some fatally and others critically.

Sasser ran across an open rice paddy “through a hail of fire to assist the wounded. After helping one man to safety, he was painfully wounded in the left shoulder by fragments of an exploding rocket,” according to his March 7, 1969, citation. “Refusing medical attention, he ran through a barrage of rocket and automatic weapons fire to aid casualties of the initial attack and, after giving them urgently needed treatment, continued to search for other wounded.”

Sasser suffered two additional wounds that left him unable to use his legs. But he dragged himself through the mud using rice stalks as leverage to another soldier 100 meters away. “Although in agonizing pain and faint from loss of blood, Sasser reached the man, treated him, and proceeded on to encourage another group of soldiers to crawl 200 meters to relative safety.” He cared for the wounded for five hours even after his medical supplies were exhausted.

According to the record of his actions, “At that point, Sasser continued searching for the wounded to provide comfort and emotional support ‘which [he] thought was part of a medic’s job, too.’”

Sasser was the only medic in his platoon to survive that day. He had been in Vietnam less than four months. In a 1987 interview, Sasser called Jan. 10 “the longest day of my life.” Watch his compelling story of valor.

The Medical Simulation Training Center at Fort Cavazos, Texas, was renamed in Sasser’s honor on June 9, 2022.

He is one of 52 U.S. Army medical personnel to have received the Medal of Honor.

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class William Hart Pitsenbarger, Vietnam War

During an April 11, 1966, firefight, U.S. Air Force pararescuer Pitsenbarger was on a rescue helicopter on a casualty med-evac call about 35 miles east of Saigon when he volunteered to ride a hoist more than 100 feet through the jungle to the ground. Once there, he coordinated rescue efforts, cared for the wounded, and prepared casualties for evacuation.

Pitsenbarger stayed behind after enemy fire struck one of the two rescue helicopters and it was forced to leave. An attempted evacuation was thwarted by a new assault. Pitsenbarger “braved intense gunfire” to get ammo to the remaining troops, “repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire” to care for the wounded while firing when he could, according to his Dec. 8, 2000, award citation.

He was wounded three times, and, as the perimeter was breached, fatally wounded, one of 80% of the squad who were casualties.

For his actions, he was originally awarded the Air Force Cross posthumously, upgraded later to the Medal of Honor, the sixth enlisted recipient in the Air Force and its predecessor organizations.

U.S. Navy Hospital Apprentice First Class Fred Faulkner Lester, World War II

On Okinawa June 8, 1945, during one of the fierce last battles of World War II, U.S. Navy medic Lester gave his life to protect the U.S. Marines with which he was stationed as a medic.

According to his May 30, 1946, citation, Lester “was quick to spot a wounded Marine lying in an open field beyond the front lines following the relentless assault against a strategic Japanese hill position” near Hill 55-1, Oroku Peninsula. He crawled toward the casualty under a concentrated barrage of machine guns, rifle fire, and grenades.

Wounded by rifle bullets, “he stoically disregarded the mounting fury of Japanese fire and his own pain to pull the wounded man toward a covered position. Struck by enemy fire a second time before he reached cover, Lester exerted tremendous effort and succeeded in pulling his comrade to safety where, too seriously wounded to administer aid, he instructed two of his squad in proper medical treatment of the rescued Marine.”

Knowing his own wounds were fatal, Lester refused medical attention, and “gathering his fast-waning strength with calm determination, coolly and expertly directed his men in the treatment of two other wounded Marines, succumbing shortly thereafter.”

Okinawa’s Camp Lester, which formerly housed the Naval Hospital Okinawa, is named in his honor.

There have been 28 Medals of Honor awarded to Navy medical personnel since 1901 when Hospital Apprentice Robert Stanley received the honor for efforts in the Boxer Rebellion. Of the 28 recipients, 22 were hospital corpsmen, four were physicians, and two were dentists.

U.S. Army Nurse Corps 2nd Lt. Regina Benson, World War II

World War II veteran U.S. Army Lt. (ret.) Regina BensonArmy Gen. Mark A. Milley, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presents World War II veteran U.S. Army Lt. (ret.) Regina Benson with the Joint Service Achievement Medal, on July 10, 2020. (DOD photo by Chad J. McNeely).

Nurse Regina Benson was stationed with the U.S. Army in Japan and Hawaii, serving in dangerous conditions and endured similar horrors as her battlefield brethren. She ultimately paved the way for women to join the military, according to her Joint Service Achievement Medal, which she received on July 10, 2020, for meritorious service.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, Benson served through the Battle of Okinawa in 12-hour shifts and almost capsized while traveling across the Pacific Ocean. The ship’s captain told all onboard they were going down with the ship during a severe storm.

Benson recalled that Japanese troops in the Okinawan hills were late to hear about the Aug. 15, 1945, surrender, instead, “upon seeing American armed forces, [Japanese soldiers] came down the hills and attacked.” The official surrender agreement was signed on Sept. 2, 1945.

Benson, now 103 and the senior nurse veteran, has said her most important duty was to make sure the wounded “did not die alone,” and that she is proud she could tell their mothers that.

Benson said she accepted the Joint Service award “not for myself, but on behalf of all the medical personnel who served in World War II. None of us deserved medals. We just did what millions of Americans did. We worked together, fought together, and served together for our nation and for our freedom. It was a unique time of American unity and spirit that sadly may never be equaled again.”

Find Out More

Since the Civil War, many service members belonging to what we now call the Military Health System have been recognized for the Medal of Honor. Here we recognize these service members and their selfless, daring displays of bravery. The Department of Defense also highlights a Medal of Honor story every week in Medal of Honor Monday.

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