It took 43 years and the insistence of family and friends, but finally a Vietnam War soldier was given a Purple Heart posthumously.
Merle Dentino, a radio operator from Peoria, Ill., was killed by friendly fire on June 30, 1970. U.S. troops fired on what they thought was the enemy position, and a mortar meant for nearby North Vietnamese soldiers exploded near Sgt. Dentino and his best buddy, Al Well. The two men were sleeping in a thatched hut in their sleeping bags that night when the shrapnel flew over his friend's sleeping bag and struck the back of Sgt. Dentino's head at about 1 a.m. He was killed instantly, his sister said.
But his family and wartime buddies did not let his passing rest without honor. He received a promotion to sergeant and a Bronze Star with Valor posthumously, and today, Nov. 11, he received recognition for his sacrifice.
The flag flew over the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., in his honor, an act which was arranged by U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, and a color guard paraded in his honor at the VA's auditorium in front of veterans and dignitaries. Boy Scout Troop 72 from San Bruno stood at attention for an extended period in his honor, and California National Guard Sgt. Major Daniel DeGeorge presented the Purple Heart to Sgt. Dentino's sister.
Sgt. Major DeGeorge had worked tirelessly to help secure the medal, along with his fellow soldiers and commanding officer. Mary Mucciante, Sgt. Dentino's cousin, spearheaded the effort, the guardsman said.
Sgt. Dentino was 21 when he was killed. He was serving with Company C, 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, the last unit to leave Cambodia in 1970. Because of his meritorious service, the Army had scheduled an early leave for home, Ms. Dentino said.
But as happens so many times in war, men and women live or die under the most chance of situations. Merle Dentino was not even supposed to be present on the battlefield at that time. He was on a week of leave. But he returned early to meet with his buddies, who were meeting with the media at a fire base in Vietnam. It was typical of his sense of brotherhood, Ms. Dentino said. He died the next day.
"For anyone who ever met him, if you saw that smile you'd never forget it. He was a brave, dedicated person who did what he was asked to do," she said.
Accepting the medal for her brother, she thanked the many people who helped make the honor possible.
"On behalf of my family and myself, I'd like to express our deepest appreciation from the bottom of our hearts for both the new friends that we've made and the healing that has occurred as a result of this moment," she said.
Sgt. Dentino stood out among soldiers, said Retired Lt. Colonel Michael Christy, Dentino's commanding officer.
"I thought the world of him. One of the prerequisites for a radio operator is that if something happened to me, that he can handle somewhat of a command structure," and Sgt. Dentino, whose ear was always right behind, radioing information and commands, was a person he could depend on, he said.
"He was an extremely gentle man in every possible way. He believed in fairness and honesty, and when he saw something was wrong he wanted to make it right," he said.
In addition to Sgt. Dentino, two lieutenants from their unit died that day, and 29 were wounded by the friendly fire, he said.
"Veterans, be they relatives, friends, coworkers or strangers, are citizens who at one significant point in their lives made out a blank check made payable to the United States of America -- for any amount, up to and including life itself," said Walt Dannenberg, associate director at VA Palo Alto Healthcare System.
Sgt. Dentino was the kind of man whose presence is still felt every day, they said.
Ms. Dentino was 16 when her big brother died.
"He was just the greatest guy. The girls absolutely loved him and the guys wanted to be like him. He was the picture of cool and yet he never had a big head," she said.
Al Wall, his best Army buddy, said he got to know Sgt. Dentino well when they marched single file through the sweaty jungles of Cambodia and Vietnam. Sgt. Dentino was in the second position, sticking close to the lieutenant colonel and with his friend behind him, followed by his own radio man. Sgt. Dentino's strong sense of fairness is what stood out most, he said.
And four decades later, he still thinks about the night the two men went to bed in a straw hut and one of them never woke up again.
"The thought I live with almost every day is the complete randomness of that night. We weren't supposed to be there. When we set up that night, I went on the left and he went on the right. That morning when I woke up, he was still in the same position. If I was over there on the right, I might have been seriously wounded," he said.
Al Wall and Lt. Col. Christy have stayed in touch all of these decades, meeting from time to time at reunions and other functions. But Sgt. Dentino, they said, is never far from their minds.
"We've lost other guys, and they are always in our thoughts. But there was never a time when we sat down that we didn't think about him. We look at each other and we say, 'Denny,'" he said.
This story contains 995 words.
If you are a paid subscriber, check to make sure you have logged in. Otherwise our system cannot recognize you as having full free access to our site.
If you are a paid print subscriber and haven't yet set up an online account, click here to get your online account activated.