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Decades later, vets recognized

Vietnam vets receive Silver Star medals thanks to Facebook

Rick Adler and Gary Birka not only survived a Vietnam fire fight, they were heroes in the process, earning Silver Star medals for their efforts. Photo credit: Kevin Knodell

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On Aug. 29, 1969, things weren't looking good for Gary Birka and Rick Adler. The two men were fighting for their lives in Vietnam, surrounded by North Vietnamese Army troops. Mortars and small arms fire tore into their platoon's position as they fought for survival. Of their 25-man element, all but six men received injuries - miraculously no one died.

Now years later, after that vicious battle, the two soldiers - now much older and grayer - have been recognized with Silver Stars for their actions that day. The two received their awards at Joint Base Lewis-McChord from Maj. Gen. Thomas James, Sept. 30.

And if it weren't for Facebook, it probably never would have happened.

Their platoon leader, Dan Pearson, remembers the day well. It was a routine mission until North Vietnamese regulars swarmed the Americans. "We were in pretty dire straights; we were essentially surrounded," Pearson recalled.

Pearson's calls for air and artillery support went unanswered because they were operating in an ostensibly "friendly" area. "It wasn't very friendly that day," Pearson remarked.

All the soldiers fought back hard. But Adler and Birka, in particular, distinguished themselves that day. Adler rushed forward to establish a perimeter and was wounded by a mortar round. "Throughout the next several hours, Pvt. Adler continued to hold his position, helped redistribute ammunition, and offered words of encouragement to his fellow soldiers," according to his award citation.

"During this time period, Pvt. Adler was wounded a second and third time but refused to leave his position until he was no longer able to move."

Birka, who had been distributing ammunition while fighting from a nearby position, saw his friend go down. Under heavy fire, he rushed to reach Adler. As he carried Adler back, he, too, was struck by enemy fire, knocking him down. Luckily for him he wore a backpack. Birka recalled that the enemy round hit his camera inside his bag. "The camera didn't survive, but I did," Birka said. Nevertheless he was seriously wounded as well.

Pearson said the battle turned when a nearby armor unit they'd worked with earlier learned of their plight and came to their rescue. The wounded, including Pearson, Birka and Adler, were all evacuated - the platoon was broken up and the men sent to different hospitals. Many recovered and returned to the field to finish their tours - but not with their platoon.

Many thought they'd never see each other again. Many had no idea if their friends had even lived. Pearson received a Silver Star for his actions that day, but he's not sure who put him up for the award. "I have no idea why," he said.

When the men reconnected on Facebook years later, it bothered Pearson that Birka and Adler received no recognition for that day but he had. He began making calls to U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, about decorations. After about 19 months of fighting, the Army finally approved the medals.

The two appreciate the recognition after all these years. But Adler said that for him, it symbolizes the sacrifice of the many young men who fought and bled in Vietnam - not just him and Birka. "We just did what everyone else was doing that day."

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