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Jan 4, 2002
Northpinellas: Another chance for a quiet hero [URL="http://www.sptimes.com/mastheads/tampabay.gif"]http://www.sptimes.com/mastheads/tampabay.gif[/URL]
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Another chance for a quiet hero

In the decades since Vietnam, one man's courage went largely unrecognized, his medal lost in bureaucracy and time. Until now.

Published March 13, 2005

CLEARWATER - Michael Bagnell had made up his mind to die.
His helicopter gunship had been shot down Oct. 5, 1971, in an empty village near the Cambodian border northwest of Tay Ninh in South Vietnam. Pinned down by enemy fire, Bagnell, a corporal with the Army's 240th Aviation Company, knew any attempt to rescue him and three crew members would be futile; the enemy would use the men to draw in and shoot down would-be rescuers.
He knew his only choice was the manner of his death: by enemy hands or his own.
"I would fire my machine gun until I had one round left and then do what I needed to do," Bagnell recalled. "I would not give them the pleasure of shooting me."
But Providence intervened, dropping literally from the sky.
A gunship from the 135th Aviation Company, piloted by Chief Warrant Officer Stephen Lawrence, touched down at the edge of the village.
What happened next should have earned Lawrence one of the highest military honors in the country. But he ended his tour of duty a month later and went home to Virginia without it. In the intervening 33 years, he married, raised a family and joined the Coast Guard. His heroic act went largely unnoticed, even by himself.
But the men with whom he served didn't forget.
This month, Lawrence will go to Washington, D.C., where the medal he earned three decades ago will finally be pinned to his chest.

* * *
Lawrence's job as chief warrant officer on a gunship was to escort medevac units, flying low and drawing fire away from other helicopters. On Oct. 5, his helicopter had taken some fire when he saw another gunship go down in a ball of flames and its four-man crew jump out. Although his own helicopter was so badly damaged its guns wouldn't fire, he attempted a rescue.
"We threw rocket pods overboard, bullet casings, cans, we figured maybe if we hit someone on the head, from 1,000 feet up it would hurt. And we had to get all the weight off the plane to take on four men," Lawrence said.
Twice he attempted to land long enough for the men to make it on board. Both times he was forced to take off after just a few seconds under a rain of enemy fire. The men on the ground could see the helicopter, but they couldn't move.
"We were pinned down every time we moved," Bagnell said. "We could see the rounds hitting the helicopter."
The third time, Bagnell knew, would be their last chance. When the helicopter put down again, he dropped everything he carried, including his M-60, and ran.
"We knew this was it," he said. He recalled seeing Lawrence's co-pilot, Paul Zabriskie, trying to provide cover, shooting out the door of the helicopter with only a .38 revolver.
"I wanted to laugh. He was practicing the ultimate effort in futility up there," Bagnell said.
Three of the men dived on board. The last one to make it on, Bagnell could only jump on the skid of the helicopter before it took off with him dangling over the side, while Zabriskie hung on to his clothes.
Back at the base, Bagnell saw the helicopter had so many holes in its sides "it looked like Swiss cheese." It was so badly damaged it fell over just after landing safely, the rotor blades still going.
"We were hit by multiple rounds and not a scratch on any of us," Bagnell said. Altogether, seven helicopters were shot down in the area that day.
For his heroism, Lawrence, along with his crew, received the Distinguished Flying Cross two days later. Lawrence was recommended for the Medal of Honor as well, but he ended his tour that month, Bagnell returned to combat and the unit was broken up soon after.
Lawrence's fellow crew members received Silver Stars, but their pilot was long gone from the Army by then. Talk of who received what medals was forgotten.

* * *
Fast-forward 33 years. After Thanksgiving dinner with his family in 2004, Bagnell, now living in Amador County, Calif., went to his study to read his e-mail. He found a message from Roger Almquist, a retired Army lieutenant colonel. Almquist was seeking the officers from the 240th who had been rescued by Stephen Lawrence and his crew on Oct. 5, 1971.
Almquist had a request: Over dinner with Lawrence in July 2004, he discovered Lawrence had never received the Medal of Honor for which he had been recommended in 1971. He wanted to get the men's narratives together, start the paperwork all over again and make sure that this time, Lawrence got the honor he deserved.
"I just sat there and cried," Bagnell said.
Even now, his voice catches at the memory of those 90 seconds when he ran for his life through a rice paddy in South Vietnam.
"I told Roger this is way too heavy to do over e-mail, so he called me and we talked about it. I told him if I needed to be somewhere to testify to some committee, tell me when and where and I'll be there."
For his part, Lawrence had left his combat years behind, along with most of the men he served with. He returned to Virginia Beach, Va., where his parents lived, went to college, married and became a Coast Guard pilot before retiring in 1994. He kept in touch with Zabriskie and his commanding officer, but no one else.
"I had not talked to anybody I served with in Vietnam in 33 years," he said.
Although he was a member of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association, Lawrence didn't go to their reunions or look up old brothers-in-arms. The recipient of other service medals from the Army and Coast Guard, Lawrence, now 55, admits he didn't even bother to display them.
"When I came back, it was not a good time to be saying I was a Vietnam vet," said Lawrence, who now flies planes for FedEx. "And now, I don't really offer it up."
But then Almquist, who had been looking up helicopter pilots who served in Vietnam, got in touch with him in late 2003. They corresponded for several months, and over that July dinner, Almquist told Lawrence he was going to do everything in his power to get him that medal.
Lawrence was touched by the effort, but didn't expect anything to come of it. Getting someone a medal years after the fact requires mountains of paperwork, but the men would not be put off.

* * *
It didn't take years. And the paperwork they were prepared to fill out was never filed. Almquist's inquiries uncovered the fact that Lawrence had been awarded a different rare medal in 1972: the Distinguished Service Cross. The cross is the country's second-highest military award, just below the Medal of Honor.
But the Army had lost it.
Only a researcher at the National Archives discovered the oversight. Lawrence learned only two weeks ago that he received the medal. He shares the distinction with just more than 13,000 other veterans who have received the Distinguished Service Cross since it was established in 1917.
"They didn't realize I was still in the Army National Guard," he said. "They could have found me, but it went into nowhere land."
On March 25, he will go to Washington, where he will stand in the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes and receive his medal, 33 years late.
Lawrence's wife, Theresa, is almost happy it took that long because it means she, his three children and his parents will be there to see it.
So will Zabriskie and Bagnell.
"I'm really looking forward to this," said Bagnell, who has not spoken to the man who saved his life, except through e-mails, since the war.
"I owe him a lot of beers."
Bagnell said Lawrence's actions went beyond what is expected of men who live and die in each other's company. Only 28 days from ending his tour of duty, Lawrence should not have been flying that day.
"It was an unwritten thing. In your last 30 days, they try to protect you," Bagnell said. "He should have been sitting in the officers club drinking beer with everything packed to get home."
Lawrence, however, knew he was needed. He said he didn't know he had less than a month left in country.
"You kind of feel like you'd be letting your buddies down," he said. "Some guys, when they started their tour of duty, counted down: 365 days, 364 days. . . . I didn't. I didn't know it was 28 days."
Even now, he doesn't think about how his life might have been different if he could have listed on his resume all these years, "Recipient, Distinguished Service Cross."
"I joined the Coast Guard and sure, it would have been a good thing to have on my record. It would have helped with promotions," he said.
"But being the center of attention, that's not where I want to be."
He has not heard from the Army, never received an apology for years of oversight. The National Archives mailed him the 29 pages of documentation, including crew members' narratives testifying to his actions and recommending him for the highest medal in the land.
The last two pages are the Department of the Army General Orders Number 873, dated May 1, 1972.
"Awarded: Distinguished Service Cross. . . . For extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations involving conflict with an armed hostile force in the Republic of Vietnam. . . . Chief Warrant Officer Lawrence's extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army."
That, Lawrence said, is enough.
"If me going to the Pentagon is the "I'm sorry,' then I don't need a letter," he said.
Theresa Lawrence said her husband is not one to dwell on the past. Even she had not heard in detail what happened in October 1971 until Almquist got in touch with them.
"He's never told five people that story of what happened that day," she said.
But the survivors remember it vividly. Every year, on Oct. 5, Bagnell and his crew chief, Roger Marley, send each other e-mails to remind themselves how they made it through that day.
"We say happy anniversary," he said. "That's our day."
Although he is disappointed the Army didn't bother to follow up on its own medal, Bagnell is grateful that the oversight gives him a chance to thank Lawrence in person.
"It gives some closure," he said. "You know, that kind of character doesn't diminish with age. It speaks to who you are at the core. It's too bad he had to go 34 years, but I'm glad I'm still alive to see it."
[URL="http://www.sptimes.com/tpc/TC.Copyright.html"]© Copyright 2003 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved[/URL]

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