Biden Awards Medal of Honor to Black Vietnam Veteran
WASHINGTON — Nearly 60 years after one of the first Black officers in the Special Forces was nominated — and then overlooked — for the nation’s highest military honor, President Biden on Friday awarded the Medal of Honor to that officer, Col. Paris Davis, for exemplifying “everything our nation is at our best.”
“Brave and big hearted. Determined and devoted. Selfless and steadfast. American,” Mr. Biden said of Colonel Davis, who refused to leave behind his fellow soldiers in the midst of battle after suffering multiple gun shot injuries.
The president’s fourth Medal of Honor ceremony was the culmination of decades of efforts by veterans and volunteers to recognize the sacrifice a Black officer had made for a nation that in many ways had refused to recognize him as an American.
Arriving in Vietnam just a month after the bloody civil rights march in Selma, Ala., Colonel Davis and three other Special Forces troops led South Vietnamese volunteers to strike an enemy camp on June 18, 1965, when they came under fire. Even after a grenade blasted off part of his trigger finger and several other soldiers were shot down, he kept fighting. When reinforcements arrived and he was ordered to evacuate, he refused to leave before saving his medic. All four of the Special Forces soldiers made it out alive.
Colonel Davis was immediately nominated for the Medal of Honor, but the Army somehow lost the paperwork twice. His teammates tried several more times, only to be met with silence. Mr. Biden said he wished Colonel Davis, who was a captain when the events occurred, had been rewarded immediately for his gallantry.
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“But sadly we know they weren’t,” Mr. Biden said. “At the time Captain Davis returned from war, the country was still battling segregation. He returned from Vietnam to see some of his fellow soldiers crossing the street when they saw him in America.”
But those rallying for Colonel Davis, now 84, gained hope in January 2021, when Christopher C. Miller, acting secretary of defense under the Trump administration, ordered an expedited review of the lost nomination, to be completed by March of that year. The resulting report had to go up the military hierarchy for approval, ending with the president, who by then was Mr. Biden. The president called Colonel Davis himself last month to let him know he would receive the military’s highest honor.
“This medal reflects what teamwork, service, and dedication can achieve,” Colonel Davis said in a brief statement after the event.
In finally recognizing the veteran, Mr. Biden also honored a chapter of Black history at a time when even teaching it has become a matter of political debate. It comes after Mr. Biden hosted a screening of a film about the mother of Emmett Till, the Black boy who was beaten to death by white Mississippians in 1955, just weeks after the College Board stripped down its Advanced Placement course for African American studies after heavy criticism from Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. On Sunday, Mr. Biden will visit Selma to mark the 58th anniversary of the day white police officers beat Black civil rights marchers as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
“Paris helped write the history of our nation,” Mr. Biden said on a day he described as “the most consequential” since he’s been president. Five other Medal of Honor recipients were in attendance for the event that was both somber and celebratory.
“After the ceremony, they said that was the best ceremony they had been at,” said Ron Deis, 79, the youngest soldier on Colonel Davis’s team in 1965, who attended the event at the White House on Friday.
Mr. Deis was also one of the veterans who had pressed in recent years for the military to honor Colonel Davis. After the ceremony, Mr. Deis said in an interview that he still believed his Special Forces leader was neglected for decades because of his race.
“It’s my take on it that people discarded it,” Mr. Deis said of the nominations.
The effort to reward Colonel Davis picked up momentum in 2014 when Mr. Deis and other veterans and volunteers sent newspaper clippings, Army filings and firsthand accounts to senior Pentagon officials.
“I think we would have followed him anywhere,” Mr. Deis said. “We knew in a tough situation he would do everything to help fellow team members and we could trust him with our lives if we had to.”
In vivid detail, Mr. Biden described how Colonel Davis’s three other teammates had been injured during the fight in June 1965 and he was “left as the last American standing.”
One soldier’s knee was shattered by a sniper bullet, while a weapons specialist was knocked out by a mortar blast. The medic was shot through the head.
Colonel Davis and the local volunteers held off waves of attackers for about 10 hours. When American fighter jets bombed enemy positions, Colonel Davis sprinted back for his fellow soldiers. He carried one sergeant back to safety even after a bullet clipped his arm. He avoided exploding grenades to crawl back to his medic.
“‘Am I going to die?’” Mr. Biden said the medic asked Colonel Davis. “‘Not before me,’” he replied.
After the Army, Mr. Davis published articles about the accomplishments of Black residents and local civil rights issues in a small newspaper he started in Virginia, called The Metro Herald.
Even after his heroism went unrecognized for decades, Mr. Biden said Colonel Davis had not grown bitter.
“You know what Captain Davis finally said after learning he would finally receive the Medal of Honor?” Mr. Biden asked the crowd gathered in the White House. “‘America was behind me.’ He never lost faith, which I find astounding.”
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