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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release February 8, 2000
                        REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
                            TO ALFRED RASCON

                             The East Room

2:35 P.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT: Colonel, thank you for that prayer. General Hicks, Secretary Cohen, Secretary Webb, Secretary Richardson, Secretary Caldera, General Shelton, General Ralston, members of the Joint Chiefs; all the members of Congress who are here -- and we have quite a distinguished array of them -- we thank them all for coming. I'd like to ask the members of Congress who are here to stand so you'll see how many we have. We're very grateful to you. (Applause.)

When the Medal of Honor was conceived in 1861, some Americans actually worried that it might be a bad thing, that the medals would be seen as somehow too aristocratic, and that there was no need for them in a genuinely democratic society. Today, we award the Medal of Honor, secure in the knowledge that people like Alfred Rascon have kept our democracy alive all these years.

We bestow the medal knowing the America would not have survived were it not for people like him, who, generation after generation, have always renewed the extraordinary gift of freedom for their fellow citizens.

Under any circumstances, a Medal of Honor ceremony is an event of great importance. Today it is especially so: For the rare quality of heroism on display that long-ago day in 1966. For the long, patient wait for recognition. For Alfred's decision to devote his life both before and after 1966 to a nation he was not born in.

Alfred Rascon was born in Mexico on September 10, 1945, just eight days after the formal surrender ending World War II. When he was very young, his parents came to America for a better chance. They ended up in Oxnard, north of Los Angeles, and when Alfred started grade school he still spoke not a word of English. He grew up near three military bases, and fell in love with the Armed Forces. At the advanced age of seven, wanting to do his part to defend America, he built a homemade parachute and jumped off the roof of his house. (Laughter.) Unfortunately, in his own words, the chute had a "total malfunction" -- (laughter) -- and he broke his wrist.

But as usual, he was undeterred. Soon he graduated from high school and enlisted in the United States Army. Appropriately, he became a medic for a platoon of paratroopers; the first of the 503rd Airborne Battalion of the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

He explained, "I wanted to give back something to this country and its citizens for the opportunities it had given me and my parents. Those paratroopers who served with me in the reconnaissance platoon knew nothing of my immigrant status. It was never an issue. They simply knew me as Doc."

Alfred's platoon was sent to Vietnam in May of 1965, part of the first Army combat unit there. On March the 16th, 1966, they were in Long Khanh Province, helping another platoon that was pinned down by the enemy. In his words, it was "ten minutes of pure hell."

In the middle of an intense firefight, Alfred was everywhere. While attending to a fatally wounded machine gunner, Private William Thompson, he was hit with shrapnel and shot in the hip. The bullet went parallel to his spine, and came out by his shoulder. Ignoring his own wounds, he then brought desperately needed ammo to another machine gunner, Private Larry Gibson.

Several grenades then landed nearby. One of them ripped his mouth open. When he saw another land near Private Neil Haffey, he covered him with his body, absorbing the brunt of the blast. Yet another grenade landed near Sergeant Ray Compton, and Alfred covered him, too.

Then, barely able to walk, bleeding from his ears and nose, he ran to recover a machine gun that the enemy was about to capture. The extra firepower kept the enemy from advancing, and Alfred Rascon saved his platoon.

Through this extraordinary succession of courageous acts, he never gave a single thought to himself -- except, he admits, for the instant when the grenade exploded near his face and he thought, oh, God, my good looks are gone. (Laughter.) I'm not much of an expert, but I would say you were wrong about that, Captain. (Laughter.) You look just fine here today.

On that distant day, in that faraway place, this man gave everything he had, utterly and selflessly, to protect his platoon mates and the nation he was still not yet a citizen of. Later he said with characteristic modesty, "I did it because I had to do it and that's all there is to it." He said, "I don't consider myself a hero -- anybody in combat would do the same thing for their buddies and friends. We were all colorblind, we were all different nationalities; the important thing is that we were Americans fighting for America."

I want to stop just for a moment to salute all the other Americans who did that in Vietnam. We want to honor you today, along with Alfred. Many of you were there with him. And I'd like for all of you to stand or, if you can't stand, lift your arms and be recognized. We want to acknowledge you today, please. (Applause.)

Alfred Rascon was so badly wounded that day he was actually given last rites. After a long convalescence, he pulled through -- and he continued to serve his country. He became a citizen in 1967. He rejoined the Army as an officer. In 1972, he volunteered for a second tour in Vietnam. And in 1983, he began working for the Justice Department. Today, he is the Inspector General of the Selective Service System, helping to make sure that others will be there to defend America as he did.

Looking at his lifetime of service to our nation, it would be hard to imagine a better definition of citizenship. So I would like to also take a moment, sir, to thank your parents, Alfredo and Andrea, for teaching their son the values of good citizenship. (Applause.) And we would all like to welcome your wife, Carol, and your children, Amanda and Alan. They must be so very proud of you today. We welcome you here. (Applause.)

Now, here's the story of how we all came here. Alfred Rascon was given a Silver Star for his valor that day, in 1966. But the request for his Medal of Honor somehow got lost in a thicket of red tape. His platoon mates persisted, showing as much loyalty to him as he had shown to them.

Thanks to them, after 34 years, I am proud to present you with our nation's highest honor.

Since the creation of the Medal of Honor, roughly one in five of them have been awarded to immigrants. Today, there are over 60,000 immigrants protecting the United States in our military.

Alfred was once asked why he volunteered to join and to go to Vietnam when he was not even a citizen. And he said, "I was always an American in my heart."

Alfred Rascon, today we honor you as you have honored us, by your choice to become an American, and your courage in reflecting the best of America. You said that you summoned your courage for your platoon because "you've got to take care of your people." That's a pretty good credo for all the rest of us, as well.

On behalf of all Americans, and especially on behalf of your platoon members who are here today, I thank you for what you mean to our country. Thank you for what you gave that day and what you have given every day since. Thank you for reminding us that being American has nothing to do with the place of your birth, the color of your skin, the language of your parents or the way you worship God. Thank you for living the enduring American values every day. Thank you for doing something that was hard, because no one else was there to do it. Thank you for looking out for people when no one else could be there for them.

You have taught us once again that being American has nothing to do with place of birth, racial, ethnic origin or religious faith. It comes straight from the heart. And your heart, sir, is an extraordinary gift to your country.

Commander, please read the citation.

(The Medal of Honor citation is read. The President places the Medal of Honor on Alfred Rascon.) (Applause.)

ALFRED RASCON: First of all, thank you very much. The honor is not really mine, it ends up being those who were with me that day.

Mr. President, thank you very much for giving me at least a couple of seconds to thank those who were with me that day. Would my recon platoon please stand up. (Applause.)

What you see before you is common valor that was done every day, and those of you who served in the military, and continue to serve in the military, are very much aware of that. What you do every day, it is duty, honor and country. And I'm deeply grateful to be here. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: I want to thank you all again for being here today, and invite you to join our honoree and his family in a reception in the State Dining Room at the end of the hall. Thank you very much, and welcome. (Applause.) But don't leave until we have the benediction. (Laughter.)

General Hicks.

END 2:55 P.M. EST