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News: Vietnam veterans among Hall of Valor inductees for 2016
03/21/2016 - by Patricia Sheridan - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
By Patricia Sheridan
March 18, 2016
Ask soldiers why they took decisive action that put them in harm’s way, and most won’t say it was out of bravery or courage.
They might say they don’t know or insist it was a split-second decision based on their training. For Army Pfc. Richard Leo, of Monessen, it was a reaction. The Army needed volunteers to take ammunition to the front lines during a firefight with the North Vietnamese on March 13 and 14, 1967.
“Nobody was volunteering, so I did,” recalled the now-70-year-old veteran. He earned the Silver Star for his bravery, going back and forth several times with a truck, loading and unloading ammo.
On what would be his last trip the second day, the truck was hit. He had been riding on the top and was blown off. “I was grabbed by soldiers on the ground and pulled into a foxhole. The driver was killed,” he recalled.
Like many others of his generation, he was drafted during the Vietnam War: “I was 19 when I went over,” he said recently.
Mr. Leo and 14 others will be honored Sunday as new members of the Joseph A. Dugan Jr. Hall of Valor at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum Trust.
Many of the inductees will be honored posthumously; several, including Mr. Leo and Jim Puhala, of North Strabane, will attend. This class of inductees represents those who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam and are from four Western Pennsylvania counties.
Mr. Puhala, who eventually rose to the rank of captain, was 25 when he arrived in Vietnam as part of the Army’s 227th Aviation Battalion, Company D.
“I did ROTC and ended up going in after,” he said. At the time he didn’t know joining ROTC in college was going to lead to active duty in Vietnam.
“I graduated in 1964, which was well before the ramp-up,” he recalled. He then took a deferment to go to graduate school. A year later he was in flight training. “By the time I got functional, Vietnam was going hot and heavy, so there I was.”
In college, the Army paid for him to get a private pilot’s license for fixed-wing aircraft, but the need for helicopter pilots was great. He started out learning on a Hughes TH-55 Osage training helicopter.
“From there we moved on to the Huey,” he said, referring to the Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter, used as a flying machine gun and rocket platform during that war. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism for volunteer action above and beyond the call of duty.
It was Nov. 8, 1967, and at the time he was first lieutenant. He was flying a UH-1C armed helicopter on a night patrol.
According to his citation, the U.S. soldiers on the ground became heavily engaged with a large enemy force. The citation says: “Lt. Puhala exposed himself to hostile ground fire as he flew his helicopter at a low altitude over enemy positions placing accurate machine gun and rocket fire.”
It goes on to say his actions were largely responsible for repelling the enemy attack.
As he remembers it, he was called out because a fort was under attack at night and brass wanted to force an enemy retreat.
“Fortunately, we kept the battle going until daylight, when the enemy broke off the attack,” he said.
He and his crew fought for hours, expending all their weaponry and having to fly back to base to refuel and rearm.
This went on all night.
“We were invincible,” he said with a laugh, recalling the bravado of his youth. “You know one of the beautiful things about a helicopter is, they are very hard to hit.
“We did take fire, but most of the time it wasn’t very effective against us.”
What the citation does not say is that enemy fire finally did claim his helicopter.
“I got shot down at about 10:30 in the morning and had about eight-and-a-half flying hours at that point,” he said. He was one of a crew of four, and three of them walked away from the crash. “One guy cracked a vertebra and ended up being evacuated out and he survived.”
“They left us on the ground a little bit longer than I would have liked, but eventually they picked us up,” he said with a laugh.
The public is invited to attend the induction ceremony, which will start at 2 p.m. in Soldiers and Sailors auditorium.
A dinner to honor the 2016 class will take place following the ceremony in the Grand Ballroom.
Jim Puhala of North Strabane poses for a portrait with the medals he earned in the Vietnam War. Photo: Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette