Jon Cavaiani liked to make one thing very clear: He didn’t “win” the Medal of Honor.
“I was a recipient,” the Columbia resident and Vietnam War hero told The Modesto Bee’s Ron DeLacy in 2003.
Cavaiani died Tuesday at Stanford Medical Center. He would have been 71 today. Cavaiani was born in England on Aug. 2, 1943, and moved to the United States four years later.
Gaining U.S. citizenship in 1968, Cavaiani exuded a soldier’s toughness throughout his life. He joined the Army despite a 4-F classification (he was allergic to bee stings) by learning of a doctor who had falsified 4-F excuses for healthy men wanting to avoid military service. Cavaiani said he blackmailed the doctor into doing just the opposite for him, and in 1969 began training as a paratrooper and went into Special Forces training. Soon he was in Vietnam, and when his year’s tour of duty ended, he refused to come home.
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That refusal set in motion the chain of events that led to Cavaiani’s Medal of Honor.
In June 1971, he led 80 South Vietnamese and American soldiers in the defense of a hill, outnumbered by the enemy and under heavy fire.
His citation read, “Sgt. Cavaiani, acting with complete disregard for his personal safety, repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire while directing the platoon’s fire and rallying the platoon in its desperate fight for survival. Simultaneously, he returned heavy suppressive fire on the assaulting force. While helicopters rescued most of his men, Cavaiani destroyed equipment and ammunition to keep it out of enemy hands and ordered his charges to escape. He covered them by standing up, machine gun blazing as the enemy advanced.”
Seven of his soldiers nominated him for the Medal of Honor, figuring he’d get it posthumously, if at all. Instead, riddled with roughly 120 shrapnel wounds, a bullet in his back, another in his leg and burns in several places, Cavaiani played dead as the enemy rummaged through the area. When they left, he descended a cliff and began working his way back toward an American camp. He lived on insects for 10 days before North Vietnamese forces captured him.
Cavaiani spent nearly two years in prisoner of war camps, constantly being disciplined for tormenting his tormentors. He once attacked several of his captors with the loose end of his leg chains.
He came home in 1973. In 1974, President Gerald Ford presented him with the Medal of Honor. Cavaiani remained in the Army as a noncommissioned officer until he retired as a sergeant major in 1990. He settled into civilian live by traveling across the nation to teach schoolchildren about Vietnam War history, giving motivational speeches and appearing at veterans events.
Cavaiani lived for a time in Waterford, where he grew peaches, before moving to Columbia in 2001.
According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society online page, his death leaves 79 living Medal of Honor recipients among the 3,490 to be honored since its inception during the Civil War.
Funeral services are pending.