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dies at 63 – 31 October 02

LOUIS RICHARD ROCCO, 63, a teenage truant who joined the United States Army during the Vietnam War and whose rescue of men from a downed helicopter earned him the Medal of Honor the nation's highest award for valor, died on 31 October 2002, at his home in San Antonio, Texas. He had suffered from lung cancer.

In 1970, Mr. Rocco had volunteered to assist a medical team whose mission was to evacuate eight severely wounded soldiers. He and the team were aboard the helicopter when it crashed under intense enemy fire in South Vietnam.

The crash left Mr. Rocco with burned hands, a fractured wrist and hip and a severely bruised back. Despite his wounds, he carried the three other survivors, who were unconscious, to safety through 20 meters of hostile fire. On friendly ground, he gave first aid to the wounded until he finally collapsed and lost consciousness. The crew was rescued two days later. In 1974, then-Warrant Officer Rocco received the Medal of Honor from President Gerald R. Ford.

The citation reads in part: "His bravery under fire and intense devotion to duty were directly responsible for saving three of his fellow soldiers from certain death. His unparalleled bravery in the face of enemy fire, his complete disregard for his own pain and injuries, and his performance were far above and beyond the call of duty . . . ." He was also awarded the Purple Heart.

Born in Albuquerque he grew up in East Los Angeles, and often stole so his family could eat. He was a high school dropout and frequently landed in trouble with the law. "I hated being at home," he told a reporter in 2000, citing his abusive, alcoholic father. "I had a lot of problems, and I got kicked out of school I don't know how many times. Whenever a test or something would come up, I would act out or do something to get into trouble. That way, my secret could be kept."

He was arrested at 16 for armed robbery. With an hour's break before sentencing, he walked into an Army recruiting office and found himself telling his life's story to a sympathetic officer. That officer accompanied Mr. Rocco to court, where he got a suspended sentence. The judge said if he stayed in school, obeyed a curfew and shunned his gang, he could join the Army at 17. Before leaving the Army in 1978, he received his general equivalency diploma and an associate's degree. He later headed the Veterans' Service Commission in New Mexico and moved to San Antonio in 1998.

Over the years, he worked extensively in advocacy groups to keep children off drugs and out of gangs, often utilizing his own story to show the benefits of a military career. He suspected that his cancer was linked to exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam, but he told an interviewer, as he was dying, that he was forgiving. "It doesn't bother me anymore," he said. "I'm at peace. I'm going to die. I don't want to die angry."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

Special to – 2 November 2002

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