Woodside resident Teresa Dentino will accept a Purple Heart medal on behalf of her brother, Sgt. Merle Dentino, a native of Peoria, Illinois, and a U.S. Army sergeant who was killed by friendly fire during the Vietnam War.
The posthumous award will be presented at noon Monday, Nov. 11 (Veterans Day), in a ceremony at the Palo Alto VA medical center complex in Building 101 auditorium at 3801 Miranda Ave.
Why 43 years late? Authorities were unaware of the enemy's proximity to the scene where Sgt. Dentino died, according to his company commander Michael Christy.
Twenty nine other soldiers were wounded in the same friendly fire incident and all received Purple Hearts, Mr. Christy said.
VA deputy public affairs officer Michael Hill-Jackson said Sgt. Dentino was promoted posthumously to sergeant and had received several medals for his service in Vietnam, including a Bronze Star with Valor.
Sgt. Maj. Daniel DeGeorge of the California National Guard will award the medal to Ms. Dentino.
About to head home
The Almanac spoke with Ms. Dentino about her brother's Vietnam experiences and the circumstances of his death. She had spoken with her brother's fellow soldiers for this account of his last days.
Sgt. Dentino, a radio operator, had been in Vietnam for 10 months of the standard 13-month deployment during that war. He was scheduled to leave for home early in recognition of his meritorious service, Ms. Dentino said.
His company had been the last to leave Cambodia in 1970. Sgt. Dentino had been taking a week of rest and recreation at China Beach near Da Nang when he learned that his company was gathering at a fire base in Vietnam to meet with the press. Carrying treats from the China Beach, he hitched a ride on a helicopter and joined his company. "It was such a big deal," Ms. Dentino said.
To a rousing cheer from his fellow soldiers, he jumped out of the helicopter just as a member of the media was climbing in, Ms. Dentino said. He slept that night in a thatched hut alongside his best buddy, a company scout named Al, but he never left.
The fire base came under attack in the early morning by North Vietnamese soldiers who had penetrated the base's perimeter, Ms. Dentino said. During return fire from U.S. Forces, a mortar fell short and killed Sgt. Dentino in his bed, she said.
The scout, Al, woke up and found his friend lying dead, Ms. Dention said. "It was very hard on him," she said. Al will be present at the Veterans Day ceremony in Palo Alto, as will Sgt. Dentino's company commander, she said.
"I wanted to put this ceremony together so his buddies could attend," Ms. Dentino said. "They're very enthusiastic, respectful and very excited."
"I'm very proud that these men think so highly of him," she added. "He was a great guy, basically."
Note: An earlier version of this story reported that the U.S Army had changed its policy about awarding Purple Heart medals to victims of friendly fire, according to information from the VA Palo Alto Health Care System. Army policy has not excluded such victims in awarding Purple Heart medals, according to medal criteria provided to the Almanac by the company commander (now retired) of Sgt. Dentino's unit.