• Homer veteran receives replacement medals for those lost in Vietnam
By Sean Pearson
Randy Clifford left a lot of things behind in Vietnam. Unfortunately, bad memories weren’t one of them.
In 1971, Clifford, was a door-gunner on a Huey UH1H with the First Cavalry Division, Ninth Squadron. Working as a recon unit, the squadron patrolled the Cambodian border at night, drawing fire from the ground to reveal the enemy’s location.
“It was a Nighthawk high bird/low bird mission,” Clifford said. “We were a hunter/killer team, and we did a lot of our work around places like Phuoc Binh, Tahniah, Song Be and An Loc.”
After flying several hundred hours of combat missions and earning his Bronze Star medal, Clifford was injured, and transferred from hospital to hospital before finding his way home to northern California. By the time his personal belongings caught up with him two months later, all of Clifford’s medals were missing; including his Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
“I guess someone along the way just decided they wanted them,” he said.
Over the past 40 years, Clifford has tried several times to get his medals back.
“I tried every number and address I could get my hands on, but I never heard a word back from any of them,” he explained. “The last time I tried was about 10-12 years ago.”
Clifford didn’t have much luck then either, and someone suggested he check around pawn shops and just buy new ones.
“I knew there were all kinds of medals available at pawn shops,” he said. “But it’s just not the same, you know?”
Clifford said he started thinking about the medals again recently, hoping to be able to hand them down to his grandson.
“I remembered Mark Begich from when he was mayor of Anchorage in the 90s,” he said. “He always seemed closer to the people; more approachable than other elected officials.”
So, Clifford approached.
It was then that he made contact with Retired Colonel Robert Doehl, who works as Special Military and Veterans Affairs Assistant on Begich’s staff.
“That was maybe two months ago, and within that time, they got everything back,” Clifford said. “I was pretty excited when I found out.”
On Saturday, Sen. Begich presented a framed set of medals to Clifford amid a supportive crowd of friends and family at American Legion Post 16.
Medals presented to Clifford included the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Air Medals, Army Commendation Medals, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service and Vietnam Campaign Medals, Sergeant Patch and First Cavalry Patch.
Clifford said that, for him, the medals represent that he did his job well over there.
“I’m certainly no hero. The real heroes are the guys who never made it to their 20th birthday,” he explained. “But I stayed the course and protected my buddies. We were all we had, so we watched out for each other.”
Clifford said it was initially quite scary to be overseas in a war, but after a while, “you just get used to it.”
“It was mostly a lot of boredom, punctuated by some terrifying moments,” he said.
One of those moments came when Clifford and crew took the helicopter up for a test following recent maintenance procedures.
“We were out during the day, as we were preparing for a night mission,” he said. “We just wanted to take the guns out for a test fire.”
Apparently, the North Vietnamese had other ideas.
Not long after taking off, Clifford’s unit got a radio call from an infantry that had been ambushed. The troops couldn’t get their wounded out because the enemy was shooting at medics.
“We didn’t even have to think about going or not,” he explained. “It was just understood that we had to respond.”
Another unit had already arrived to help out by the time the Ninth Squadron arrived, so they did a perimeter search of the area.
“Suddenly, we found a whole bunch of gun ships about 100 feet in the air, traveling at 40 knots,” he said. “They just opened up on us with AK 47s.”
Clifford said 18 rounds hit the Huey; all of them breaching the cabin. “One of them just got me in the back,” he said. “They shot out our radio and most of the dashboard, so we got the hell out of there.”
Unable to call for back-up because of the destroyed radio, Clifford and his unit were flying over an area that was completely covered with “bad guys.”
“They didn’t take any prisoners, and neither did we,” he said. “That’s just the type of war it was.”
According to Clifford, his biggest concern at the time was whether the helicopter could continue flying.
“I know the guys wouldn’t have left me there – just like I would never leave them,” he said. “We all would have died right there.”
The Huey made it back to an aid station, and Clifford was loaded up for further transport.
“They couldn’t get the helicopter to start, so they jumped it,” he explained. “That’s how I made it out.”
Clifford said he is thrilled to have the medals back with him, even if it took awhile to get them. And he was truly moved by the generosity of his fellow vets.
“The only way I got my medals back was because other Vietnam vets gave up theirs,” he said. “I’d really like to find out who it was, because I would like to thank them personally.”
Despite the incredible losses the American troops endured, Clifford said the best part of his experience over there was all the people he met and served with.
“The worst part is the fact that the bad parts never go away,” he said.
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