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Medal of Honor Recipient Jon Cavaiani Interview

For his first few months in Vietnam, Staff Sergeant Cavaiani felt like the war was passing him by. But when the war found him, Cavaiani was ready to prove his courage several times over.

Born in England, Cavaiani immigrated to the U.S. with his family at the age of four. He became a naturalized citizen in 1968 and enlisted in the Army despite his 4-F status – Cavaiani was allergic to bee stings. He was recruited for Special Forces and sent to Vietnam in the summer of 1970; his experience on the family farm in California resulted in a relatively dull assignment as a veterinarian and agricultural advisor, but that would change a few months later.

Stationed at an isolated radio relay site near Khe Sanh, Cavaiani had charge of 13 Americans and 70 Vietnamese troops. When the site came under overwhelming enemy attack, Cavaiani directed the evacuation of most of the men, and remained behind with the rest when – for reasons unknown to them – the helicopters stopped coming. The men believed Cavaiani had been killed while covering their escape; in fact, he avoided capture by pretending to be dead, even as his bunker was set afire. After eleven days in the jungle, Cavaiani was captured nearly within reach of an American camp; after undergoing interrogation, he was imprisoned at the infamous Hanoi Hilton.

Cavaiani weighed 198 pounds when captured and 92 when released nearly two years later. Once he was back in shape, he asked to return to duty with the Special Forces. On December 12, 1974, Cavaiani received the Medal of Honor from President Ford. He retired in 1996, and went on to graduate with honors from a culinary arts program in California.

His Citation Reads:
SSG Cavaiani distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty in action in the Republic of Vietnam on 4 and 5 June 1971 while serving as a platoon leader to a security platoon providing security for an isolated radio relay site located within enemy-held territory. On the morning of 4 June 1971, the entire camp came under an intense barrage of enemy small arms, automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenade and mortar fire from a superior size enemy force. SSG Cavaiani acted with complete disregard for his personal safety as he repeatedly exposed himself to heavy enemy fire in order to move about the camp's perimeter directing the platoon's fire and rallying the platoon in a desperate fight for survival. SSG Cavaiani also returned heavy suppressive fire upon the assaulting enemy force during this period with a variety of weapons. When the entire platoon was to be evacuated, SSG Cavaiani unhesitatingly volunteered to remain on the ground and direct the helicopters into the landing zone. SSG Cavaiani was able to direct the first three helicopters in evacuating a major portion of the platoon. Due to intense increase in enemy fire, SSG Cavaiani was forced to remain at the camp overnight where he calmly directed the remaining platoon members in strengthening their defenses. On the morning of 5 June, a heavy ground fog restricted visibility. The superior size enemy force launched a major ground attack in an attempt to completely annihilate the remaining small force. The enemy force advanced in two ranks, first firing a heavy volume of small arms automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade fire while the second rank continuously threw a steady barrage of hand grenades at the beleaguered force. SSG Cavaiani returned a heavy barrage of small arms and hand grenade fire on the assaulting enemy force but was unable to slow them down. He ordered the remaining platoon members to attempt to escape while he provided them with cover fire. With one last courageous exertion, SSG Cavaiani recovered a machine gun, stood up, completely exposing himself to the heavy enemy fire directed at him, and began firing the machine gun in a sweeping motion along the two ranks of advancing enemy soldiers. Through SSG Cavaiani's valiant efforts with complete disregard for his safety, the majority of the remaining platoon members were able to escape. While inflicting severe losses on the advancing enemy force, SSG Cavaiani was wounded numerous times. SSG Cavaiani's conspicuous gallantry, extraordinary heroism and intrepidity at the risk of his life, above and beyond the call of duty, were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself and the U.S. Army.