In honor of Veteran’s Day last week, in today’s podcast I talk to a retired solider who also received the U.S. military’s top award: the Medal of Honor.
Capt. Paul Bucha was a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division. In 1967 he and the company he was commander of were dropped off in Bình Dương Province. Two days after their arrival, the lead group in Bucha’s company stumbled upon a full battalion of North Vietnamese. The group came under heavy fire and were pinned down. It was in this moment that Mr. Bucha took the action that would eventually lead to him receiving the citation for the Medal of Honor. Captain Bucha is a humble man, and understandably didn’t want to talk about his heroics on the podcast, so here’s what his official Medal of Honor citation says:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Capt. Bucha distinguished himself while serving as commanding officer, Company D, on a reconnaissance-in-force mission against enemy forces near Phuoc Vinh. The company was inserted by helicopter into the suspected enemy stronghold to locate and destroy the enemy. During this period Capt. Bucha aggressively and courageously led his men in the destruction of enemy fortifications and base areas and eliminated scattered resistance impeding the advance of the company. On 18 March while advancing to contact, the lead elements of the company became engaged by the heavy automatic weapon, heavy machine gun, rocket propelled grenade, Claymore mine and small-arms fire of an estimated battalion-size force. Capt. Bucha, with complete disregard for his safety, moved to the threatened area to direct the defense and ordered reinforcements to the aid of the lead element. Seeing that his men were pinned down by heavy machine gun fire from a concealed bunker located some 40 meters to the front of the positions, Capt. Bucha crawled through the hail of fire to single-handedly destroy the bunker with grenades. During this heroic action Capt. Bucha received a painful shrapnel wound. Returning to the perimeter, he observed that his unit could not hold its positions and repel the human wave assaults launched by the determined enemy. Capt. Bucha ordered the withdrawal of the unit elements and covered the withdrawal to positions of a company perimeter from which he could direct fire upon the charging enemy. When 1 friendly element retrieving casualties was ambushed and cut off from the perimeter, Capt. Bucha ordered them to feign death and he directed artillery fire around them. During the night Capt. Bucha moved throughout the position, distributing ammunition, providing encouragement and insuring the integrity of the defense. He directed artillery, helicopter gunship and Air Force gunship fire on the enemy strong points and attacking forces, marking the positions with smoke grenades. Using flashlights in complete view of enemy snipers, he directed the medical evacuation of 3 air-ambulance loads of seriously wounded personnel and the helicopter supply of his company. At daybreak Capt. Bucha led a rescue party to recover the dead and wounded members of the ambushed element. During the period of intensive combat, Capt. Bucha, by his extraordinary heroism, inspirational example, outstanding leadership and professional competence, led his company in the decimation of a superior enemy force which left 156 dead on the battlefield. His bravery and gallantry at the risk of his life are in the highest traditions of the military service, Capt. Bucha has reflected great credit on himself, his unit, and the U.S. Army.
In today’s podcast I talk to Capt. Bucha about his military career, what Vietnam was like, and what it’s like to receive the Medal of Honor. It’s a fascinating discussion with an honest-to-goodness hero.
- Why Captain Bucha gave up a full-ride swimming scholarship to Yale so he could attend West Point
- What fighting in Vietnam was like and how it was different from wars up until then
- The gallows humor soldiers often developed during Vietnam
- What Captain Bucha learned about men and how they relate to one another from war
- The events that led up to Captain Bucha receiving the Medal of Honor
- How a man handles and adjusts to being a Medal of Honor recipient
- Why some men don’t fare so well after receiving the medal
- Are Medal of Honor recipients made or born?
- The life lessons Bucha took away from his service in Vietnam
- What he hopes civilians know about the Vietnam War as we close in on the 50th anniversary of its beginning
- And much more!
If you’d like to learn more about the Vietnam War and the Medal of Honor, I recommend checking out the following books. I have both and they are great:
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Special thanks to Keelan O’Hara for editing the podcast!
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Well, earlier this week it was Veterans Day in the United States. Today I have the pleasure and honor speaking to a Vietnam War veteran and also a Medal of Honor recipient. His name is Paul Bucha.
Today we’re going to discuss Captain Bucha’s service in the Vietnam War. We’ll discuss the events that led up to his Medal of Honor citation. We’re going to talk about what it’s like being a recipient of the Medal of Honor and the burden of responsibility that comes with that.
We’ll also be discussing what he learned from his service in Vietnam and what he hopes civilians understand about the war … what lessons we can take from it as we approach the 50th Anniversary of the beginning of the Vietnam War.
It’s a fascinating discussion with a very fascinating … he’s a heroic man. So let’s get on with the show.
Paul Bucha, welcome to the show.
Paul Bucha: My pleasure.
Brett McKay: You are a Vietnam War veteran and also a recipient of the Medal of Honor, but before we get there, let’s talk about your life before you joined the military because I’m sure people are curious on … maybe there was something in the life of a Medal of Honor recipient when they were young that … it helped them become a Medal of Honor recipient. What was your life like before military service?
Paul Bucha: I was an Army brat.
Brett McKay: OK.
Paul Bucha: We traveled to Germany, Japan, and all around United States. I guess most of my time, besides trying to do well in school, because my mother and father were very strict when it came to that … I would say from my very early age, a competitive swimmer. That allowed me to travel as well, because we went all over the United States swimming.
When I got to Japan, my father had originally … because I had found quite a bit of success in swimming … had enrolled me in the Georgia Military Academy with several other swimmers. They were trying to assemble a prep school championship team down there. I was originally scheduled to go there, but I made the decision that anything could happen in swimming or in any sport when you bet your future on it.
You do everything to make the Olympics. God forbid, you have a broken leg and you miss your Olympics. So I just told my dad that I understood it probably would mean that I would fall behind my contemporaries in the States, but I wanted to go to Japan with the family.
I went to Japan with the family and I swam. They didn’t have an indoor pool except at the Fujiya Hotel, which is about 100 miles away. There was only one in the country, the rest were hot baths.
So I played basketball, football and baseball … summer, I swam. In the winter, I tried to do one day a week swim … I would go to a large hot bath I knew about, put my goggles on and the Japanese people would separate and give me a pass to swim back and forth for a half hour or so. So, I had a very ordinary life, in the sense of the military family.
I don’t think that the Medal of Honor really finds any genesis in the life before. It is more something that comes about when realizations of the moment, in ordinary people, convince them that they have to do something to change destiny, as they understand it.
They don’t do it the day before. They don’t do it the day after, and rarely did they do it more than once.
Therefore, I’m not sure that the life you lead up to that moment has much relevance to it. Other than being taught to be determined and having confidence, things like that. They don’t know there’s much that the family imparts to you, or that education imparts to you.
Brett McKay: OK. Was there an expectation that you would serve in the military? Follow your father’s footsteps?
Paul Bucha: No. I, in fact, pledged my fraternity at the University of Indiana because that was one of the better swimming teams in America. Then I went to Yale University and picked my college, which was the one that all the swimmers went to.
By chance, my father said, would you like to go see West Point? I said, where is it? He said, well it’s around here somewhere. We were coming back from New Haven, heading back to St. Louis. I was driving. He said, look, it’s got to be on the Hudson River. Let’s just go up the Hudson River.
I said, well West Point’s got to be on the east-bank pointing west. So we got in the car and drove up. Only to find after we’d been driving about two hours up the Hudson, that a man at a gas station in Poughkeepsie, told us that no, it was not on east-bank pointing west. It was on the west-bank pointing east.
So we went back down, found it. Met Jack Ryan, who was the coach. Spent the evening. Went back and talked to my athletic director about what I’d seen, and what I’d heard. He told me … he says, if you go to West Point for one day, and then quit, go to Indiana or Yale … you will be a better person for it, the rest of your life.
I thought that was a pretty convincing thing to say. Rarely does a young kid get offered a chance to do something, that in the eyes of adults … especially adults he or she respects … could be a life changing experience.
So I told West Point I would come, fully expecting I’d be gone by September, and at Yale or Indiana. I remember looking in the mirror, December 5th … we were getting ready to swim Yale, and I forgot to tell him I wasn’t coming. I called the coach. I said, Coach … oh my gosh, I didn’t tell Coach Moriarty I’m not coming. I said, he knows you’re not, don’t worry.
So no, West Point was something that was totally by chance and a career in the military … my father would be the type of person to say, if you decide to do that, you’re on your own. Just like when I decided to go to West Point. He said, you’re doing that on your own. We’ll see you when you graduate. He only visited twice during the entire four years.
His point was, that if parents push kids to do something that demands of them sacrifice, it’s very easy for the children to turn around and blame the family if things don’t go well.
My father always been the one that … you pick, you choose to do something that’s difficult … you’re on your own. Good luck. We’ll cheer for you. We’ll pray for you. We’ll hope everything goes well, but don’t look to us for an excuse for quitting. You decided to go yourself. Don’t quit.
You’ve been taught not to quit, but we’ve always also taught you to pick the things that you choose to be non-quitter in. Going to West Point was one of those, because he said he wanted to make it absolutely clear. He thought I was nuts.
He didn’t know I was a Colonel in the Army. He was a son of the Depression. He said, you don’t know what it would be like to go into Yale on a full scholarship to my generation. How you can turn it down, I don’t know. I said, maybe I’m not turning it down. I’ll be there in September. Well lo and behold, I was there in December, still at West Point.
Brett McKay: Well what was it about West Point that made you stay?
Paul Bucha: There was a certain excitement. There was a buzz among the cadets. I went and ate dinner in the mess hall. There was, at that time, 2,800 cadets. Now we got 4,400 cadets … so 2,800. There was just something about all 2,800 eating together.
The athletes had their own section. Not that they could be slovenly or come less well dressed than the rest. No, everybody looked alike. The clothes were the same, everything. No one got any shortcuts on that.
The athletic teams, for camaraderie purposes, ate together. I just thought that was kind of a neat environment to be in.
Again, I was young. I was 17 years old … impressionable at the time. This buzz that was in the room, this excitement, it was very attractive and made me want to see what it was like.
Brett McKay: Very good. So you went to West Point and you didn’t go into the military service right away. You went to Stanford to get your M-B-A, after graduating from West Point. Why did you decide to do that?
Paul Bucha: Well, first of all, remember I went to Stanford as a second lieutenant. So I took the oath along with everybody else … graduated … except my first duty assignment was the Graduate School of Business at Stanford.
Where others, their first duty assignment might of been, Fort Sill, Fort Campbell, or Fort Benning for Airborne and Ranger School. My first assignment in the military, as a second lieutenant, was to go to Stanford, which meant I would graduate from Stanford as a first lieutenant, having never been in the military, technically.
The reason I chose it, is that the Army had made a policy change the year before … when, due to Air Force’s offer to the top five percent academically, at the Air Force Academy, and any of the other top five percent from the other academies who chose to go Air Force …
They would give them the chance, because of their academic achievement, to go to the graduate school of their choice, at the time of their choice, and the subject of their choice. All they had to do is get in, and the rest was paid for.
So I started thinking, this is probably not a bad idea. I owed the Army four years for West Point. Then I would owe them four years for going to Stanford. The two years at Stanford counted for my first two years, due West Point. Then the next two years counted for my first two for Stanford and my last two for West Point, which meant that I got six years of college education, for four years of obligation.
The reason for picking it was that I went through my academic experience and basically said, the one thing I know nothing about, is business. That, perhaps it would be wise to get that under my belt as well.
So I went about it. I applied to Stanford and Harvard, got into both, and picked Stanford. I picked Stanford in March. I’ll never forget it. It was March 31st, I believe it was, and it was thirty degrees and raining, with a foot of wet snow on the ground, which is very typical in West Point.
So I called Harvard and I said, what’s the weather like? The lady said, what? I said, what’s the weather? She said, I thought you were calling about coming, so you’re going to matriculate or not.
I said, yes I am, but at first, I want to know what the weathers like. She said, well it’s probably the same as yours. It’s thirty degrees, raining, and we’ve got about six to eight inches of wet snow on the ground. I said, can I call you back in a half hour? She said, sure.
So I called Stanford and I said, what’s the weather like? The Registrar of the Business School said, seventy degrees, not a cloud in the sky … been that way for six months. I said, can you put down, Paul -W- Bucha will be attending Stanford.
I went. I was young. I mean, my gosh I’d just graduated from college essentially. I went to the Stanford Business School as a second lieutenant, graduated first lieutenant.
While at Stanford, where everybody goes … gets a job in the summer, you know, for daddy … or they go backpacking in Kathmandu or something like that, or work for their dads bank, or go out and get a legitimate job to try help defer their cost … I decided that since my profession at the moment was being in the United States Army, that I should go to Airborne and Ranger School.
So in the ninety-one days of holiday break we had for the summer, I fit in ninety days of training at Fort Benning, in first the Airborne School, and then the Ranger School.
Brett McKay: Wow.
Paul Bucha: Which was, by the way, unique for a Stanford student.
Brett McKay: Well, yeah. I imagine. So did you graduate from Stanford before you got shipped off to Vietnam?
Paul Bucha: Oh yeah. I graduated from Stanford in the summer of ’67, drove to Fort Campbell, Kentucky … excuse me … yeah, drove to Fort Campbell, Kentucky where I was a new arrival. I showed up with low quarter shoes, even though I was an Airborne Ranger.
I didn’t have jump boots. I didn’t have starched fatigues like everybody else. I starched my own with hand starch, and unfortunately put the insignia on the wrong collar, and was standing there in low quarter shoes, when the brigade commander saw me, who I was reporting to.
And I said, sir, Lieutenant Bucha here. He says, I know who the hell you are. I just can’t figure out what you are. Get out of here. As I was leaving, he says, go stand by that bush out there. I’ll call you when I want you. This is six in the morning. At six at night, he called me in.
He said, Ah, I see you have a masters degree, I bet you’re pretty proud of that. I said, yes sir. He says, well you’re going to be the guy in this unit that’s got three masters degrees, and he won’t be very impressed with you, one.
I said, sir I’m very confident he’ll be impressed and when I get a chance to meet him … he says, you’re meeting him and I’m not impressed. From that moment on, he was the man that I just idolized. I just thought he was one special person.
He told me that I was going to have the honor of commanding a company in Vietnam. That it was his job to see to it that I was qualified to do so.
Brett McKay: So where were you deployed exactly in Vietnam?
Paul Bucha: The first deployment, we went on Operation Eagle Thrust, which is … there was one brigade at 101st already serving in Vietnam at the time, the first brigade. So this was when we brought the colors of the whole division over, the other two brigades, the headquarters companies, and supporting artillery and armor for the whole division.
The 3rd brigade, of which I was a part, went to Phuoc Vinh, which was an old French fort, in the middle of the rubber plantation area. So it was dense, low canopy juggle, and rubber plantations.
Brett McKay: A lot of people are … they’re really familiar with World War II because of, Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and The Pacific. I think a lot of people aren’t familiar with what war was like in Vietnam. Can you describe what the fighting conditions were like? And how it was different from the previous World Wars?
Paul Bucha: There was no front line. The wire around the place you were sleeping that night, was the front line. Whereas the Allied Forces swept across half of North Africa, then into Italy, and then up through France. There was always a line, and you were pushing that line.
As troops fought on the front line, and were successful, they would consolidate the objective. Meaning they would set up the defenses, and the units behind them would pass through and take up the fight.
Eventually the unit that won the first battle, would be in the back, and then it would start all over again. For example, a person who served for the duration in World War II, the entire time, in the combat role would have on average, the statistics indicate, eighty-one days in combat.
Whereas in Vietnam, for those on the front line, in eighty-one days, you had eighty-one days of combat. Not necessarily hot combat, but you were in combat. You were looking for the enemy, and the enemy was looking for you.
The other thing is we had no objective, which to this day, if someone goes back and analyzes that war, including why the public turned so quickly against the war, and why the anger raged here home, was that no one could articulate a clear, measurable, finite objective.
They could articulate wishes, like, stop communism, but that’s not finite. Until the last person, in the last book is destroyed, you haven’t stopped it. It can always re-surge.
It’s like today, destroy ISIL. How does one go about doing that? You would have to kill each and every person from here to eternity, who embraces the ISIL idiology.
If you took World War II, it was absolute surrender, Germany. So what it was, is you had to drive against the German and Japan forces, until such time, as they were willing to sign an unconditional surrender.
Or you could take George Bush … the first battle in Kuwait, when he said during Desert Storm, the objective is to push the Iraqi force out of the country of Kuwait. That was pretty simple if you stood on the boarder, when the last Iraqi jeep went across, it was over.
People criticized him. They said, you should’ve gone to Baghdad. Bush, who had fought in World War II, said, that wasn’t the objective, and therefore we will not do that. The war was over in thirty-seven days.
Whereas Vietnam dragged on and on. The mission I would get as a company commander, would be, go to this area X-Y, conduct search and destroy operations until told to move somewhere else.
When we would move, the bad guys would come back. We’d go to another place, and we’d move around. It was as if we were trying to win a war of attrition, but that wasn’t an articulated objective.
If you thought about it, if that’s what you’ve wondered, with the population center that Southeast Asia is, and the neighboring countries … albeit Vietnam and China were historical enemies … they’d linked for this particular endeavor. Especially after Mau. There was no end. I mean, you couldn’t destroy them all. You couldn’t kill them all.
So someone had to come up with an objective and no one did it.
Brett McKay: Was that frustrating for the men on the ground?
Paul Bucha: It was frustrating because when many of them would say, what do we got to do to get home? The answer would be survive twelve months. That’s not a very professional or wise way to expend your youth.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Paul Bucha: That’s the problem. There’s a bitter taste in wars like that. By the way, all other subsequent wars after George Bush the first, have been fought the same way.
There is no clear, concise, finite, measurable objective. That’s the frustrating part. When do we come home from Afghanistan? When we succeed. What is success? Well, haven’t figured that one out yet.
It’s part of the debate that has to go on before you commit your youth to war. The reason you have to do it is, once you have … but it’s not the military’s job, it’s the civilian’s job … it is not the military’s at all.
Civilians have to conclude, because the military is subordinate to the civilian leaders in this land. Civilians leaders have to decide, why are we considering going into combat? What is it we hope to achieve specifically, finitely, and in a measurable format? So we can judge progress to or from success.
Once they do that, you turn it over to the military and say, how long will this take? What will it cost? Then the civilian leaders can say, poo, that’s too expensive. Is it worth it? But we haven’t gone through that process.
We get surprised. Stiglitz and Bilmes have written a document now that this was the seven trillion dollar war. Seven trillion dollars.
Someone said what would you achieve by it? Well we would have gotten rid of Saddam Hussein, but the country of Iraq would be in a very unstable position.
Afghanistan would be on the verge of reverting back to Taliban control, at least in major areas of the country. Someone said, for five thousand lives and seven trillion dollars? I don’t think so.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Paul Bucha: That’s the sad part. Now the beauty is contemporary society, contemporary communities, do not confuse the warrior with the war. The frustration people have with these wars, has not yet been focused and directed at, or burdened upon the men and women who are set to fight the war. And that’s good.
Brett McKay: When did you learn about, I guess men, and like how men relate to each other from serving in the war? I’ve read accounts … there’s a journalist, Sebastian Junger, who wrote the book, War.
Paul Bucha: Right.
Brett McKay: Wrote just about the camaraderie that he’s never seen anywhere else. Did you see that as well, with the men you served with?
Paul Bucha: I don’t use a camaraderie. I say that it is most intense love that exists on the planet. The reason for it, is you have to be willing to give up your life for that person, and you know it. I mean, it’s not like that’s an anomaly. That’s part of the course of events in war.
For men and women to be willing to do that for each other, transcends anything that might be described by the word, camaraderie. I don’t think it transcends the word love.
My men came from all over the place. They were considered the clerks and the jerks. The jerks because vast majority had stockade time, and clerks because a very few had extremely high degrees. They were draftees who might have a degree … masters degree in English or in Elizabethan literature or something like that. They were the speech writers for many of the generals.
As we mobilized in Vietnam, at the peak during this period, which was when we went full score way over the five hundred thousand troop level, no one needed a speech writer.
So they got sent to me. And no one wanted the stockade people, so they were sent to me. So my particular group were considered the losers of all losers. And me, as I’d gotten a commander who’d never been to Vietnam, the only one in the whole 101st who had not yet been there, I too was a loser. So we were sort of meant for each other.
Difference is the men didn’t like that. They said … the stockade guys said, look if I can go back to the stockade and not have to go to Vietnam with this guy, send me. I’ll go. I’ll gladly go. I don’t want to … send me with a person who’s been there three or four times. You got me.
We trained together, worked together, stuck together. Out of that came, almost this mystical bond among us. It got to the point where, everybody had lost a lot of people, because when we came over the 101st, was immediately subjected to combat.
Because of who my men were, no one wanted us around. So we were sent out on all these tough missions. But we had not lost anybody. It got to the point, where someone said, we’ll send you trucks. We said, no thank you, we’ll walk. We’ll send you helicopters from the 82nd. We said, no thank you. If it’s not our helicopters, we’re going to walk. I couldn’t even get people to go on -R- and -R- for a while.
Brett McKay: Huh.
Paul Bucha: So, it’s a mystical love that comes about from the realization that in order to be part of this group, you have to be prepared to die for the others.
Brett McKay: That’s powerful. So let’s talk about the events that eventually lead up to your Medal of Honor citation. What happened that, I guess, that fateful day?
Paul Bucha: You mean that … well there was three days.
Brett McKay: OK.
Paul Bucha: It’s actually more than that. We were … God knows, we somewhere near Cambodia. We had been … during Cat, we were brought in to ensure that COMUSMACV, the commanding general of the United States Forces in Vietnam, Westmoreland, kicked in his headquarters … which came under attack during the Tet Offensive.
The first unit was there, was … Wolfhounds is nickname … they went through their basic load of ammunition in like, the first three days. So I got a call.
Westmoreland knew me from West Point. His wife was like the, my surrogate mother. Since my parents weren’t showing up, when I made All-American, or if I got a distinguished cadet award for my academics, she would stand there with me. She would come to all the swimming meets. She was a fan of the swimming team.
Then because I was in charge of the “Hop Committee”, which meant social events for my class, I had to introduce the Superintendent at every receiving line to the guests.
So I got to know the general well. My unit was a company within the 187th Airborne regiment, which he commanded in Korea. The one in that which jumped into Inchon. Plus he had been the commanding general of 101st. So if you put it all together. I knew him. He knew me. This was his unit … both of his units. He said, send in Delta company, third of the 187th, to protect us.
So first thing I did is I got … made sure I knew what my orders were. They were to make sure this place is invulnerable, and make sure it looks like it’s just bissering with combat forces ready to do harm.
So I tore down the pastel air raid shelters … since the North Vietnamese didn’t have any airplanes, I don’t why we had air raid shelters … that I made into two bunkers, which sent the entire headquarters la-la-land on me. They just said, oh my God … then maybe they’ll think we’re in a war zone. I said, well we are I think.
We were there for three weeks. We didn’t fire a round. No one got hurt. We took care of everybody. There was just my guys. They were very tough, disciplined people. They knew the difference between a threat and a perceived threat.
In that particular role, it was very important that we not fire our weapons excessively, because you never know when you might really need all the ammunition, should there be a major confrontation.
After we did that job for three weeks, we were sent back out to the boonies. I got a call on the radio saying, you’re going to be picked up … got a new mission. You’re going to … basically what they told us … your company’s going to be the lead element in the counter Tet Offensive. Trying to maintain contact with and engaging combat, those forces withdrawing from Saga … trying to head for the Ho Chi Minh trail.
So that’s what the operation was. They inserted us into a landing zone where there was no artillery support, because we were beyond that. We were dependent totally on air power. Two or three hours after we landed, like the proverbial dog, we caught ’em.
The dog catches a bus. We caught the N-V-A-V-C battalions. With an -S-.
We stayed engaged with them for two to three days and then … we moved at night. We never … the philosophy at the time was to form these night defensive perimeters, and I just did not see the logic of that. Make all this noise, bringing in all this equipment so the N-V-A-V-C know where you are. Exactly where you are. Then your job is to, I guess coax them to attack you. Believing in your defensive structure, you will kill a lot them.
That didn’t make a heck of a lot of sense to me, because you don’t pick a fight with someone’s, huge compared to yourself. You might be forced to fight them, but you don’t pick that fight.
So what we did is we followed more of a Ranger philosophy. We moved at night, same as they did. We had chance meetings. So instead of sitting in a middle of a field with barbed wire around us, we would be in the middle of the jungle moving just as quietly as they. Periodically we would engage them.
That was our way of staying in touch with them, because we knew then they moved at night, we would move with them. Dec … 19th … 18th … 19th, so the last day of the period I had everybody refueled and resupplied with bed and new ammunition.
We pressed off into the jungle and one of my men said, can I request permission to fire? Recon by fire? And I said, why? He said, I’ve seen water carriers. I’ve seen women. I don’t want to get involved in direct combat until I know what’s here. He said, they don’t see us as a large force … we weren’t very large, we were eighty-nine … but the group that was out front of us was three people.
He fired maybe four rounds and the entire mountain unloaded on him. At that point, I said, oops. We caught the bus. That ended up being the challenge. Is how could we … they were estimating … no one knows because they would withdraw before daylight, but because of circumstances I had, five or six of the men had been cut off and were actually behind the N-V-A-V-C lines, and alive and survived.
So they were able to be debriefed and told everybody what it looked like from the enemy’s side. As it turned out from the people that were killed on the battlefield, that we pulled the insignia of, and things like that … if this was a North Vietnamese regular unit and a V-C unit … the V-C unit was Dong Nai Battalion, which was one of the most respected of their regular fighting units … Viet Cong, V-C.
They had the same kind of a unit, which was more of a special ops unit. Probably a sapper unit that was coming out of out Saigon, for the people to bring in explosives. We stumbled on them when they were trying to take a break and I guess they didn’t like it, because they were mad.
At the end of the day, these guys who were the losers in everybody’s opinion, ended up being one of the most highly decorated, so many people have told me, the most highly decorated, but I didn’t believe. There’s always a chance where we might not have counted it correctly … one of the most highly decorated unit, in the entire history of the Vietnam War.
Brett McKay: Wow. Go ahead.
Paul Bucha: Tremendous lesson in that, right? For all of us not to pre-judge people?
Brett McKay: Oh yeah.
Paul Bucha: But give them a chance to prove what they are as opposed to presuming you know.
Brett McKay: When did you find out that you would receive the Medal of Honor?
Paul Bucha: Well I didn’t know anything about it. I heard my men put me in for the Distinguished Service Cross. That was awarded to me at Fort Knox, when I was going to school after I came back from Vietnam.
Then I got a call … I mean I heard people say, oh my God that should be a Medal of Honor. Some of my men wrote me notes in hospitals … I hope they give you the Medal of Honor for this kinda stuff. All of which was, in my opinion, enthusiastic response once people realized they were still alive.
I was bothered by, even the Distinguished Service Cross, because I lost ten men. It is something that’s a disconnect between giving someone a medal, which will be honored and revered by others, who on their list of accomplishments, that they lost ten men. Now it gives, awe, I’m like you could’ve lost everybody. Fine, but I lost ten.
I had an understanding with my men. I asked them, look I’m new at this, but I’m not stupid. I’ve been trained to do this the right way. If you trust me and do as I say and request of you, I will get you home. And ten guys didn’t make it.
Well, anyway one day I was told … I couldn’t understand … they said someone in the personnel office in military told me that chances of you going to Vietnam again in the near future, are slim.
I couldn’t figure that out. I said, why I’m an infantry officer. They said, no. You have any job you might like to do? We could normally send you to business school or graduate school … you’ve already done that. We could send you to be a staff officer … you’ve already done that, except you did it in combat. Got any other ideas?
I said, well I could go teach at West Point. They said, that’d be great. I couldn’t … I never understood that.
Then while I was at West Point, in May … actually it was in, yeah early May … in 1970, the sergeant called me and said … actually the first call was from Colonel Hamlin, who was my director at West Point. He was in charge of me. He was not a general … inspector general of the Army.
He called me to tell me about … that I’d be receiving a phone call, because they had upgraded … the senior service cost of the Medal of Honor. When the sergeant called and told me that, I said, no thank you. He said, what? I said, no thanks. I don’t deserve it.
He said, can I talk to you candidly and off the record without military protocol? I said, yeah, and he cussed me out one side and down the other. He said, who the hell do you think you are? This isn’t for you to decide. You didn’t win this medal. You’re going to get asked to wear it. You wear it for your men. I said, wow. I said, what time do I have to be there sir?
Brett McKay: So going into that idea, you had … there was some hesitancy for you to take on that medal. I imagine, I mean there’s just this supreme, heavy, I don’t know if weights the right word, but sense of obligation, duty, responsibility that comes when someone earns our nations highest honor for the military.
I’ve read accounts of soldiers who were also similarly honored with the Medal of Honor. They didn’t handle the spotlight, or the heaviness of it, very well. What do you think separates … what happens between a man who, or a soldier who can’t take on the mantle, the Medal Honor and those who can do it? What goes on there?
Paul Bucha: I don’t think it is the fault of the recipient. They didn’t ask for it.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Paul Bucha: It’s how we treat them. At best what it is, it’s … bar all the Medal of Honor recipients into one room. You looked at them, and I didn’t tell you who they were. You would say, they look like anybody else. The reason you would say that is, they are just like anybody else. They’re not special. There’s nothing innately different about them, except this potential that we realize every single person we meet has, to challenge destiny.
That potential was called upon by each of these men, because they found this mysterious confluence of time and circumstances. It gives rise to being able to perceive, to see, to recognize your fate, destiny, as it will be absent any change. When you see it, you refuse to accept it. You say, not today. You do something.
God knows what you’ve done. You dive on a hand grenade, that’s one, I mean, men that do that … it’s extraordinary. You pick up a weapon and you go kill a lot of people. You pick up a wounded soldier, you throw him on your back, you save him and rescue him.
You’re a pilot and you decide to crash land your airplane to try to take care of some prisoners of war, that you see are escaping, since you can help them.
A helicopter pilot goes where everybody tells him not to go, to try to pick up the wounded.
They know, and they say, look I can go back, but fate … destiny as I see it … is those kids are going to die. They’re going to die, and I’m going to live with that the rest of my … no way is that going to be my fate. I’m going to go get them.
A young lady gets on a bus like she did every other day. In Montgomery, Alabama, walks half way down, sees a sign … colored’s in back. She says, not today, and sits down on that bus seat in the middle of the bus, and refuses to move. Yet she’s seen people, had dogs sicked on her, batons used to beat them, fire hoses to blast them, and in fact, people being shot. And yet, she sat down.
Nobody gave her a medal, but Rosa Parks changed Montgomery. She changed the United States. She changed the world. She saw her destiny in her mind … if I go back there I will forever be in the back of the bus.
So I think that’s what occurs, and each of us has that potential. Every single person you meet. If we would only treat each other as that potential deserves to be treated, just think how more civilized we would be to one another.
Whereas now, you slap the little ribbon around your neck, with a ribbon of blue, and everyone stands up and cheers. The mistake people make, is to say that we who wear that ribbon say, we deserve the cheering. We don’t.
Let the men and women with whom we served and those who were not recognized, deserve it. Therefore we accept your applause. We accept your celebration, not for us, but for the men and women with whom we served.
Now what makes it difficult, is when people don’t accept that. People don’t know when to say, you’re a hero. Come do this. If you’re twenty-one years old and everywhere you go, everybody’s opening the door, doing all this stuff for you, won’t let you … you have to hang around with the generals. You can’t go be the sergeant that hangs around with the sergeants. That makes it very, very difficult.
Brett McKay: I imagine there’s also some exploitation going on. I’m sure people will see this young man has a Medal of Honor. They’re like, hmm. Maybe I could use this guy for something, right? For my own gain.
Paul Bucha: Yeah, I’m sure. That’s not only in the military. It’s in the civilian life.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Paul Bucha: That’s in the kid that wins, becomes the world chess champion.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Paul Bucha: All of a sudden, people who you know, who never picked up a chess piece in their entire life, become aficionados of chess, and have this guy hanging around with them. So there’s always that.
We, in our society, have an enormous fascination and almost an awe when it comes to celebrity. I think that’s one of our feelings. The Medal of Honor recipients, many people think, benefit from it. I think their lives would be easier, where the celebrity … not to single them out, because in many celebrities you get singled out while your en vogue. Then (whistling sound), you’re gone.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Paul Bucha: That’s also tough for people. Especially young people that come up from the ranks, and get it when they’re private first class. The rest of their life, this is something that’s going to be there.
There comes a time when the spotlights turned. That’s a very difficult time for many people.
Brett McKay: I saw on your bio that you were at one time, the President of the Medal of Honor Society?
Paul Bucha: Yes.
Brett McKay: Is there sort of a fraternity? Is this the right word for people who’ve received the Medal of Honor?
Paul Bucha: Yup, there’s a society.
Brett McKay: There is.
Paul Bucha: For which there is only one criteria. You must be a recipient of the Medal of Honor. Period. There’s no grounds for expulsion. So you can be the meanest, baddest, crook in the world. If you have the Medal, you’re a member of this society.
Brett McKay: What do you all do? Do you have yearly meetings?
Paul Bucha: We get together. We do that. Now we try to use the platforms that we’ve been given and the celebrity we are assigned, to serve others.
Brett McKay: That’s fantastic. So looking back on your service in the military, particularly your service in Vietnam, what lessons did you take from that, that helped you in the rest of your life?
Paul Bucha: Perhaps the most one … the unlimited potential that each person has. When you see these people brought from the spare parts of the country … in Vietnam they were arriving as single people.
They weren’t arriving as units, and leading these units. You left as a survivor. There weren’t the ten month survivors. No, you either survived twelve months or you had already gone home. So they came as individuals, and they returned as individuals.
As a result, you have to know they haven’t recognized them as individuals. You come to the conclusion, is each and every one of them has this enormous potential to do extraordinary things.
Brett McKay: OK. This is the last question. Next year, I believe is the 40th anniversary for the end of the Vietnam War. Is that correct?
Paul Bucha: Well what we call it,
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Paul Bucha: I’m on the commission … it’s the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the war.
Brett McKay: Yeah. 50th anniversary. The beginning 50th of the …
Paul Bucha: 50th for the beginning of the war, because we’re not really sure when it ended,
Brett McKay: Yeah, we’re not sure.
Paul Bucha: We’re not sure when it started.
Brett McKay: OK. It’s been a while, so we have the distance of time. What do you hope listeners know and understand about the war in Vietnam and the men who fought in it? That they might not know and understand about right now.
Paul Bucha: Well, the most important thing is that these were warriors, selected by the country, not by themselves, to go to a far off land, who’s location most of them couldn’t find on a map. The language they did not speak and the culture they did not understand, but they went.
That incurs an I-O-U from society. Therefore when P-T-S sets in, some of it’s immediate. In most cases like mine, it took forty some odd years to set in. We owe them. No one owes me, but we owe them. We owe them the finest medical care that this country can provide. We owe them a job when the economy pulls the rug out from underneath them. The manufacturing jobs, which they’ve had and made a career out of, disappear. We owe them because they did something for us and they will continue to bear the burden of that service in war, the rest of their lives.
Therefore we have an obligation that goes along simultaneously with that, congruent to their life, and that is to see that they can have a job. If we have to, we have to re-train them. If you don’t agree with that, don’t send them. They didn’t ask to go. This wasn’t their idea.
Someone came up with this concept of the dominoes falling, that would justify it. Most of them would say, what the hell is a domino? A domino little black dot… why am I in Vietnam for the dominoes? Well Vietnam’s a domino and … I would explain it to my men, and say, ugh, some general came up with that. interesting enough, it wasn’t the general, because the general was just as discouraging. It was a politician who came up with that, right?
What you learn is that there’s this tremendous obligation the country has to those who wear uniform, or have worn the uniform, and their families. You can’t escape that obligation. Period. You cannot. It’s expensive. Unfortunately, you should’ve thought of that before sunk ’em.
The other thing is, this thing I repeated earlier. That each one of these kids, who went over there, performed in such an extraordinary way. They didn’t lose a battle, not a battle in the war.
The problem is, there were more coming in than they could count. That was the only course of action, that the political geniuses of the time thought of. Kill everybody. That’s how we’ll know. Whose going to kill the V-C’s?
That’s why they started counting body counts. The people taking the body counts didn’t realize that these soldiers, also had a sense of humor. In real life how silly it is, to ask us, how many people you killed. What difference does it make. We didn’t have a finite supply coming.
Therefore if you killed ten percent of it, they only had ninety. No, there was an infinite supply, so you didn’t do anything. You just didn’t accomplish anything.
Well these soldiers adopted that somewhat cynical attitude. You would hear them … hear my radio telephone operator after a battle, he’d say, we have fifteen V-C killed, four estimated to be wounded. No one said, oh, how do you know? They would just say it …
And then they would say, one thousand pounds of rice, this and that, and four diet coke cans. Yes, you’re a diet coke can, you’d hear them say. I’d look like, what do you mean, diet coke can? When he got off, he said, sir, there’s some guy counting up the number of diet coke cans here in Vietnam. I know there is. There’s got to be.
You come to love these people, because in the middle of an experience which could take their life any second, they got this somewhat cynical sense of humor.
Brett McKay: Well, Paul Bucha, thank you so much for your time. This has been an interesting,
Paul Bucha: Thank you.
Brett McKay: Enjoyable conversation.
Paul Bucha: Thank you. I appreciate it. God bless ya.
Brett McKay: Our guest today was Paul Bucha. He is a Vietnam War veteran, as well as a recipient of the Medal of Honor.
If you’re looking for more information about the Medal of Honor, the history behind it … definitely recommend checking out a new book called, The Medal of Honor: A History of Service Above and Beyond. You’ll learn how the Medal of Honor came about, why we have it, and you’ll also learn about some of the stories of the men and women who have received our nations highest honor for our Armed Services. So check it out. You’ll find that on Amazon.com.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com.
If you enjoy The Art of Manliness podcast, I’d really appreciate it if you would go onto iTunes or Stitcher, or whatever it is you use to listen to the podcast and give us a rating. I’d really appreciate it.
Also, F-Y-I, we now have transcripts of all of our podcasts in text form, on the site. So you can go to artofmanliness.com/category/podcast. Look through the archives of our podcast, and you’ll also find text transcriptions. So if you want to read through, and not just listen to the podcast, you can do that.
Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.