Vietnam Veteran McElreath Honored: Medal given 40 years after heroics

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Coweta's Melvin "Junior" McElreath with the Silver Star medal he received from the U.S. Army more than 40 years after serving in Vietnam.

By ALEX McRAE alex@newnan.com When Melvin McElreath Jr. was inducted into the U.S. Army, it didn't take him long to learn that the Army ran on its own, unique schedule. "When I was in training they always told us to 'hurry up and wait,'" he says. "We'd hurry to chow and wait to eat. We'd hurry to training and wait to start. That's how they did it."
But until late last year, McElreath, known best as "Junior," had no idea that he would wind up waiting more than 40 years to be awarded the Army's second-highest medal, the Silver Star, for continuing to fight and carry his fellow soldiers to safety after being shot. Medals are normally awarded soon after the military action that deserves recognition. McElreath's case was unusual in that Army brass were not made aware of his heroism under fire until a book by a former comrade-in-arms described how McElreath selflessly risked his life to save others after an ambush. McElreath says he has spent years trying to forget his Vietnam experiences and had mixed emotions when the Silver Star stirred up old memories, not all good. "To tell the truth, it probably would have meant more if I'd gotten it back then," he says. "I guess waiting this long is kind of like the Army way. But I'm proud to have it." McElreath, who moved to Coweta in 2002, was born and raised in East Point. He graduated from Headland High School in 1967 and on Jan. 5, 1968, married his high school sweetheart, Nan Evitt. The newlyweds had barely gotten to know each other before McElreath received a draft notice. In March 1968 he was inducted into the U.S. Army and sent to basic training at Fort Benning. McElreath then attended advanced training in mechanized infantry operations at Anniston, Ala. As a member of the 5th Battalion of the 60th Mechanized Infantry Regiment, McElreath drove an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC), a track vehicle capable of carrying several troops. In September 1968 McElreath headed for war half a world away. By then, protests against the Vietnam War were at their peak. Soldiers knew their service and sacrifice were not appreciated by all their fellow citizens back home. Few complained, including McElreath. "My dad fought in World War II, and when they called me, I was proud to serve," McElreath says. When McElreath arrived in Vietnam, only one thing was more noticeable than the stifling heat and humidity. "There was this sickening smell when we got off the jet," he says. "The whole place smelled like nothing but gunpowder." McElreath joined his unit at a post in the delta of the Mekong River. His unit's specialty was patrolling roads and clearing land mines and other explosives planted by enemy troops along routes traveled by U.S. soldiers. McElreath was later transferred to the 1st Battalion of the 16th Mechanized Infantry. He soon rose to the position of Track Commander, or TC. His job called for him to stand in a recessed well in the top of the APC and operate a .50 caliber machine gun from behind an armored shield. "We weren't in combat every day, but it was enough," he says. "The bad guys were out there all the time planting mines or doing something to try and get our guys." During one routine patrol, McElreath parked his vehicle in a secluded position near a tree line. Minutes later he saw movement ahead and then watched a Vietcong guerilla slip out of the tree cover and -- unaware that McElreath was watching -- bury a land mine in the road. It didn't stay planted long. "I watched him plant that mine, then cocked my .50 and it went 'Bam, Bam,' and that was that," McElreath said. McElreath's most memorable encounter was on Aug. 12, 1969. He was due to leave Vietnam in 20 days, but when enemy forces attacked a column of APCs, McElreath wondered if any of his group would get out alive. Enemy attacks on APCs like McElreath's were common. Before that day, McElreath had already earned three Purple Hearts for being wounded in battle while five different APCs were shot out from under him. The attack scenario was familiar. An RPG (rocket propelled grenade) struck and disabled McElreath's APC and all the troops in the armored column abandoned their vehicles, grabbed their rifles and started fighting back. Minutes later, McElreath saw a pair of Army medical personnel struggling to carry a wounded man on a stretcher to a medevac helicopter that had landed nearby. McElreath recognized the wounded soldier as his 1st Sergeant, Alfredo Herrera. He also saw that the Army medics were having trouble with the load. "They dropped him about three times in the first 20 yards," McElreath says. "I knew they weren't going to make it to the chopper at that rate so I went over to help." McElreath told the two men to carry one end of the stretcher and said he would carry the other end by himself. Then they started moving Sgt. Al Herrera to safety. McElreath had taken only a few steps down the trail when he was hit by enemy small arms fire. "The bullet hit me in the side and came out by my navel," he says. "Just went in and out." Sgt. Herrera saw McElreath get hit and told him to drop the stretcher and get treatment for his wound. That was an option McElreath never even considered. "I told him 'we can't worry about that now. We've got to get you on that chopper,'" McElreath says. "We just kept going." When they arrived at the helicopter, Sgt. Herrera told McElreath to get aboard. Instead, McElreath went back for more injured, not stopping until all the wounded Americans were aboard the helicopter. At that point, Sgt. Herrera ordered McElreath to board the chopper. He finally complied. McElreath was treated at a field hospital, then transferred to a military hospital in Japan, where he spent another week. After a long flight back to the States, McElreath recuperated for a month at an Army hospital at Fort Gordon, in Augusta, Ga. He was then sent to Fort Benning and worked as an instructor at the Army's Officer Candidate School, teaching aspiring officers about life in Vietnam. In March 1970, McElreath left the Army, glad to close that chapter of his life. "When we come home, they treated us like a bunch of nothing," he says. "They didn't even consider us being in a war. They said it was just a 'conflict.' They should have been there." McElreath began a 35-year career with Firestone, followed by another three years with Aramark before retiring for good. In the mid-1980s, Melvin and his wife, Nan, moved to Peachtree City and kept raising a family that grew to include four children and 10 grandchildren. In 2002, the McElreaths moved to Coweta County. Over the years, McElreath rarely spoke about his time in Vietnam. "I put it behind me, brother," he says. "It was something I don't hardly talk about." McElreath did speak occasionally with his former 1st Sgt. Al Herrera, and company commander, Phil Greenwell. About "three or four" years ago, Herrera called to say he had written a book about his Vietnam experience. He sent a copy to McElreath. A section of the book described the day McElreath hauled Herrera to the medevac chopper after being wounded himself. "In the book he said I was a hero for what I did that day." McElreath read the book, enjoyed it, and thought little more about it. But as McElreath continued to enjoy retirement in Coweta County, former Army buddies and military personnel were working behind the scenes to see that he got the recognition he deserved for his actions on Aug. 12, 1969. Last August, almost 42 years to the day after he was shot while helping to save a fellow soldier, McElreath got a phone call informing him he had been awarded the Silver Star. The Silver Star, which recognizes gallantry in action, is the second highest honor awarded by the Army, ranked only behind the Medal of Honor. When he first learned of the honor, McElreath thought, "That was good." But then he told Al Herrera, 'Tell you what, that and a dollar fifty will get me a cup of coffee." He has since thanked Herrera and told him he appreciated the recognition, even if it was a long time coming. "My wife said I should be thankful and I am," he says. "It's truly an honor. But it would have meant more if I'd gotten it back when I got that fourth Purple Heart when it all happened." McElreath's medal came in the mail. He had the medal and accompanying citation mounted and framed and it now occupies a place of honor in his north Coweta home. McElreath was invited to attend formal medal presentation ceremonies that will be held Saturday at Fort Riley, Kansas, where the 16th Mechanized Infantry is now based. He is one of five Vietnam-era veterans scheduled to be recognized for various medals that day. Five soldiers who served in Iraq will also be honored. McElreath can't attend the formal ceremonies at Ft. Riley, but says that doesn't detract from the honor of earning a Silver Star. "I'm proud to have it, but I still have mixed emotions," he says. "I know it's a great honor, though."


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