TUSCALOOSA, Ala. --
What do you do when your platoon commander is killed?
One Marine knows the answer — take charge.
Sergeant Gary L. Hill, who completed his service in 1969, received the nation’s third-highest award for doing just that during a ceremony at the Tuscaloosa Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center here June 7, 2013.
Retired Gen. Charles C. Krulak, former Commandant of the Marine Corps, presented Hill with the Silver Star Medal for his leadership as a junior Marine during the Vietnam War.
“I only did what I had to do to stay alive, and that’s keep moving,” said Hill, who served as a rifleman. “The Marine Corps raises everybody to be a leader if they need to be. If you’re the last man standing you’re the leader anyhow.”
Retired Maj. James M. Burch coordinated the arrival of Krulak and a Marine color guard from the Anti-Terrorism Battalion in nearby Bessemer.
“That’s a hell of an award for a lance corporal,” Burch said. “I wanted to do what I could to make sure that he received the recognition in the professional manner that he deserves. I have great respect for enlisted Marines that receive high honors because there are so many that never get recognized.”
Hill was almost one of those Marines until one day at church when a family friend, Jeff Brown, heard Hill’s story. Brown knew he needed to be recognized. So Brown made contact with retired Vietnam veteran Maj. Gen. John Admire to make sure Hill received due credit.
Admire has been working for 40 years to recognize his Marines who served during Vietnam and Hill was no exception. Admire worked tirelessly on substantiating records until Hill was approved for the Silver Star Medal for his actions while Hill served with 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.
“We call it, ‘bringing Gary out of the jungle,’” said Marine Bill Lightkep, Hill’s brother-in-law. “To get that award… is really about closure… for what really happened.”
According to the citation, Hill’s platoon commander was killed just after they were directed to assault Hill 881-South in Khe Sanh. The Marines were in need of a leader. Hill answered the call of duty.
He rallied and led his fire team to protect their dangerously exposed right flank.
Between Hill and his other Marines, they had three rifles; however, none of the rifles were fully-operational at once. The weapons kept jamming.
So Hill and the troops had to set up an assembly line to fix and shoot the rifles. Hill said, when the rifle reached him from the other repair stations he would be ready to shoot the weapon.
However, the NVA fighters were close. Hill took matters into his own hands when there was no time to go through that process. He then used his M-16 rifle as a weapon of opportunity.
“I hit one in the head with an M-16... like I was swinging a golf club at his head,” Hill said. “It knocked him kind of woozy. The only thing about that battle is I would have rather had my M-14. It’s much heavier... If I hit him with that… his head would have been crushed.”
Hill bounded to an enemy trench line and single-handedly killed three North Vietnamese Army soldiers. Hill then ordered his fire team to provide suppressive fires as he maneuvered to locate an NVA sniper. Once the sniper was exposed, Hill and his team killed the sniper.
When the battle cooled down, he and other Marine began to care for the wounded.
Hill’s actions consequently saved the lives of eight Marines.
Hill, his Marines, and a corpsman have been there for each other ever since. His friend and Marine Sgt. Tommy Wheeler said the ceremony was no different.
“This is what we do for each other,” said Wheeler, who was also awarded a Silver Star for actions in Vietnam that day. “Plus the three of us were together. This isn’t our first merry-go-round.”
Judy, Hill’s wife of 45 years, can see noticeable change in her husband’s behavior after the award. Since he returned from Vietnam, Hill has suffered from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the intense fighting in the jungles of Vietnam.
For Hill, the Silver Star ceremony signified the end of a chapter in his life. Twenty-seven were killed and 54 were wounded. He said now he is sure his fallen comrades can rest in peace.
“It’s one of the happiest days I’ve had since before the Marine Corps because it puts to bed 881,” Hill said. “I’ve had a lot of problems since the day. I’m just thrilled that I can have somebody like General Krulak to present the award.”