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Richard Rocco, 63; Ex-Barrio Gang Member Won Medal of Honor for His Heroics in Vietnam War

November 05, 2002|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Richard Rocco, a onetime Wilmington barrio gang member who received the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War for rescuing three fellow crew members from a burning helicopter, has died. He was 63.

Rocco, who later served as an advocate for his native New Mexico's veterans and more recently promoted an anti-drug program sponsored by Vietnam Veterans of America, died Thursday of lung cancer at his home in San Antonio. The disease was diagnosed in January.

Then-Sgt. 1st Class Rocco, a medic, was on his second tour of duty in Vietnam on May 24, 1970, when he volunteered to accompany a medical evacuation team on an urgent mission to pick up eight critically wounded South Vietnamese soldiers near the village of Katum.

As the helicopter Rocco was riding in neared the landing zone, it came under heavy enemy fire. The pilot was shot in the leg; the helicopter crashed into a field. Rocco suffered a fractured wrist and hip, and a severely bruised back.

But he ignored his injuries and the intense enemy fire to pull three unconscious crew members from the burning chopper. Suffering burns to his hands in the process, he carried each man across about 20 yards of exposed terrain. He then helped administer first aid to them before he lost consciousness.

Rocco and the other crewmen were rescued the next day. Lt. Lee Caubareaux, the helicopter's co-pilot whose shattered arm was saved by doctors, later lobbied for Rocco to receive the Medal of Honor. If not for Rocco, Caubareaux later said, he and the other crewmen would have burned to death.

On Dec. 12, 1974, President Ford presented the Medal of Honor to Rocco, the only New Mexican to receive the nation's highest award for valor during the Vietnam War.

"Nobody -- nobody -- would have faulted him when he got out to safety if he had stayed there," retired Army Lt. Gen. Ed Baca said three weeks ago at a ceremony in Albuquerque honoring Rocco. "But, instead, he charged into that helicopter."

"You really don't get a chance to think about what you are doing," Rocco said at that ceremony. "You want to save lives and live too. I was lucky; I was able to do that. God looked after me."

A native of the Albuquerque suburb of Barelas, Louis Richard Rocco was the oldest son in a poor Italian-Latino family. With his father frequently unemployed, Rocco later recalled, he stole potatoes and corn from neighbors' fields to help feed his parents and eight siblings.

When he was 10, the family moved to a housing project in the San Fernando Valley and later to Wilmington. By 13, Rocco was getting into trouble with the law.

"I spent most of my teenage years in jail," he told the Albuquerque Tribune last month. "At 16 1/2, they were getting ready to send me up until I was 21."

While waiting to be sentenced for armed robbery, Rocco wandered into a Los Angeles Army recruiting station, where he told his problems to the recruiter.

"That was the first time an adult in my life didn't judge me," Rocco recalled. "He just listened, actively listened. And it was the first time that I spilled my guts. All the pain and anger inside me came out."

The recruiter spoke to the judge, and they agreed that Rocco would spend a year in a delinquency home and then his parents would sign a waiver, allowing him to join the Army.

The recruiter, Rocco told The Times last year, "saved my life, got me out of the gangs, got me out of the barrios."

In 1978, after 22 years of military service, Rocco retired from the Army as a chief warrant officer.

Considered a leader and role model for other Vietnam veterans, Rocco established the Vietnam Veterans of New Mexico; opened a Vet Center, which provided peer counseling to Vietnam veterans; and became director of New Mexico's Veterans Service Commission.

He also started a shelter for the homeless and a nursing home for veterans, and persuaded New Mexico legislators and voters to let all veterans into state colleges free.

During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, he returned to active duty at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas, where he recruited medical personnel.

In recent years, he was instrumental in promoting Veterans Against Drugs, a growing nationwide program in the schools.

"The legacy I would like to have left is that these kids would have values of honesty, integrity, patriotism, loyalty and compassion," Rocco said. "They're growing up with no thought as to which direction they're going."

Rocco is survived by his wife, Maria; two sons, Roy of Simi Valley and Brian of San Diego; one daughter, Theresa DuBois of Carson City, Nev.; his mother, Lita Rocco of Hemet; a brother, Clyde of San Antonio; four sisters, Sandra Schmidt and Gayle Rocco, both of Hemet, Mary Rocco of San Jacinto, and Diane Calderon of Las Vegas; and five grandchildren.

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