SAN DIEGO — Two Vietnam veterans were awarded the Silver and Bronze Star medals Friday for their courage in a battle on a jungle hillside where more than 75 percent of the troops with them that day were killed or wounded.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in his citation to the president that Joe Cordileone and Robert Moffatt showed extraordinary heroism during the first Battle of Khe Sanh in 1967. Marine Brig. Gen. James Bierman apologized to the veterans for the 46-year-wait, saying "I'm sorry that it took so long for these awards to work their way around to you."
The men were never recognized until now because the commanders who make such recommendations were killed: Of the more than 100 American troops on the hill, 27 were killed and 50 were wounded.
The pursuit for medals for the men started with a retired Marine general listening to a group of veterans reminisce about April 30, 1967, when troops with Company M, 3rd Marine Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, advanced to secure Hill 881 South and were attacked by the North Vietnamese Army.
Maj. Gen. John Admire said he was shocked to learn not one of the survivors had a medal.
Retired Pfc. Cordileone still has shrapnel in his face from the fighting. He continued firing for about eight hours after getting hit by fragments from the explosions as he carried his platoon commander, who was killed when a second mortar hit. Moffatt suffered severe head wounds after taking over the machine gun from a wounded comrade, saving American lives.
"I knew we had to remedy this because there was no doubt in my mind that what they did was absolutely courage beyond belief," Admire said.
Admire conducted research to verify the veterans' stories. Thanks to his efforts, six Marines have received medals for that day, including Cordileone, now the chief deputy city attorney for San Diego, and Moffatt, a retired cost estimator who lives in Riverside.
The Navy says Cordileone's efforts saved the lives of at least 10 Marines.
Cordileone at one point dragged Moffatt to a bomb crater for safety and tried to stop the bleeding from his cheek by dressing the wound. He recalled with a laugh how Moffatt gestured for him to pull it off and when he did, Moffatt told him "You idiot, I can't breathe."
Both men still suffer from post-traumatic stress. Moffatt continues to see doctors for traumatic brain injury.
Cordileone said he was humbled his fellow Marines would recommend him for the award.
"The truth is I was just doing my job," he said at the ceremony attended by parents of recruits graduating Friday from boot camp. "I did nothing more than any other Marine would have done in the same situation, and I certainly know that I did no more than any other Marine or corpsman who climbed hill 881 with me that day."
Retired Pfc. Moffatt accepted his award in memory of his fallen comrades.
"I can go to my grave with some peace of mind and say well somebody appreciated what I tried to do," he said after the ceremony.
The Navy Secretary had to cancel his appearance at the ceremony at the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot because of Monday's shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard.