Vietnam veteran and Amherst Township resident Joe Horvath has been nominated for Veteran of the Year at Italian American Veterans Post 1 in Lorain.
The honor will be decided Saturday at 5 p.m. Nominations for the award come through various military groups in Lorain County such as Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.
Horvath remembers Oct. 2, 1969, as if it were yesterday.
As a member of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Medical Company, also known as “Dustoff,” he had become accustomed to his job: search, rescue, and collecting the dead.
On that fateful, day, the 22-year-old Horvath and his fellow crewmen pulled a South Vietnamese army soldier to safety aboard their helicopter, Dustoff 88. That’s when a Viet Cong gunman opened fire at the nose of the vehicle, wounding the commander and sending shrapnel and glass flying into Horvath’s face.
“It was an everyday thing and we had to do it,” he said. “We were soldiers and flew all day. It was getting dark by the last time we went in. The aircraft commander told us to keep an extra eye out and it was our last run of the day, so that meant getting lower to the ground.
“I saw the man at the 10 o’clock position. He was waiving a flashlight with a red lens in it but the lens was broken,” he said. “He had two bullet wounds, both of them big. He fell as he came toward us because of them and from the wind of the helicopter blade.
“I hollered out, ‘den day,’ which means ‘come here’ in Vietnamese. He started running toward us and fell down again. By this time, the helicopter was about six feet off the ground. He got to the ship and our hands slapped together. Then I looked and saw the Viet Cong right in front of us. They fired right away.”
All aboard Dustoff 88 on that run managed to survive without air or ground backup. The man hanging from Horvath’s arm as the helicopter took off was the 29th the unit had saved that day.
“Our ship started going up and up and up and I am hanging on to this guy blowing in the wind,” he remembered. “I felt the pain on the side of my face, but with the adrenaline it was hard to focus on it.”
For his role in the rescue, dubbed “Mission Impossible,” Horvath was awarded the Silver Star Medal, the third highest accolade given to a U.S. soldier in combat, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.
During and following the Vietnam War, the 82nd Medical Company earned two Presidential Unit Citations, four Meritorious Unit Citations, and a Valorous Unit Award. The commander of Dustoff 88, Michael Novosel, was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor and penned the book, “Dustoff: Memoirs of an Army Aviator.”
Horvath was the keynote speaker June 23, 2007, at the dedication ceremony for the Lorain County Vietnam Veterans Memorial on North Lake Street in Amherst.
“We’ve been involved since they started building it,” said Horvath’s wife and high school sweetheart, Linda. “Joe, I, and committee members take care of the actual memorial. We pull all the weeds, trim all the bushes, replace the mulch. We have a vigil every Memorial Day.”
Linda sold dedication rights to more than 1,500 pavers lining the walkways of the memorial, one personally dedicated by Joe to a fellow Lorain native that was killed in Vietnam, his best friend, Edgar La Torre.
“Edgar was only 19 when he died,” said Joe. “We volunteered for the draft together. He told my mom he’d take care of me when we went to boot camp. I told his mom the same thing. We were supposed to stay together but got separated when I went to Dustoff and he went to the Air Calvary. He was shot on the ground after being in the country less than three weeks.”
The next vigil at the Vietnam memorial will be at 6 p.m. on Saturday, May 27 and will also mark the 10-year-anniversary of the site’s dedication.
“Whenever a flag at the memorial gets frayed or tattered, Joe changes it,” said Linda. “That’s his job. If one needs to be lowered to half-mast, he’s out there at dawn, and at dusk, he raises it back up.”
The Horvaths showed us a video slideshow, made this past fall, detailing Joe’s personal wartime photos and said it was the first time they’d shared it outside of a close circle.
Pictures included the immediate aftermath of “Mission Impossible,” harrowing depictions of other rescue operations, as well as more pleasant moments alongside La Torre and a faithful canine companion. Linda’s music choices accompanying the pictures included Vietnam-era songs such as The Who’s “Baba O’ Riley” and The Animals’ “We’ve Got To Get Out Of This Place.”
“Putting this together was 45 years in the making,” she said. “It took three months to make. Joe and I helped divide up the slides, but Melendez Video in Amherst had to individually clean each one. I went back several times to pick the music to go with each one. People there couldn’t believe that Joe had just had these pictures for so long and kept them to himself.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.