by SGT Crystal Rothermel, 143rd Transportation Support Command
KUWAIT (April 27, 2006) - Life can go down many avenues. For Gordon Roberts, the roads treaded deep into Vietnam's Thua Thien Province, testing his every attribute and winning a spot in military history.
While the path was treacherous and the moment ruthless, the experience did not deter him from life's course. In fact, it was only the beginning.
Today, LTC Gordon Roberts leaves footprints in the sands of Kuwait and in the hearts and minds of today's soldiers as he offers experience and advice. He may be the youngest living Medal of Honor recipient, but he sees himself as a comrade, a leader and developer of troops. He is commander of Troop Support Battalion, 1st Corps Support Command and head of Force Protection at Arifjan.
"I think everyone thinks a Medal of Honor somehow translates into leadership. I don't think that is inherently accurate," said Roberts as he smiled and took a sip of coffee. He says that actions speak louder than words.
"What I may bring is a little piece of confidence for the soldiers when I ride along. They know I have been through a lot and look at me and say, 'well, if he can do it, I can do it," he said.
Despite his 125 pound structure, soldiers know Roberts has a wealth of knowledge and often look to him for advice. Like children waiting for story time, soldiers often request a reflection of what happened that day in Vietnam. Although his biography is found on internet sites and military publications world-wide, the story is as real today as it was in 1969.
Roberts, a native of Lebanon, Ohio, joined the Army three days after graduating from high school, a natural step for someone from a military family growing up in the small, patriotic town.
At the age of 17, he was an Army infantryman. By 19, he faced the enemy and returned home a hero.
Above and beyond
The date was July 11, 1969. Roberts was a rifleman with Company B, 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry, sent to eliminate enemy bunkers along a ridge. While approaching the bunkers, his convoy was hit by heavy fire from automatic weapons and grenades. Moving quickly, he made his way from his immobilized platoon towards the closest bunker, firing while running. He silenced bunker after bunker. Despite the wave of enemy fire, he helped the wounded and continued fighting, finally returning to his unit.
Roberts' actions not only saved the lives of soldiers and helped defeat the enemy, but earned him a spot in history as a Medal of Honor recipient.
After serving four years in the Army, the veteran attended the University of Dayton and earned a bachelor's degree in sociology. He gained a wife, son and daughter. He raced sprint cars. He practiced social work for 18 years. By 1989, Roberts felt it was time to take a new path, one out of business attire. He applied for and received a direct commission as an Army officer.
"I left the (old) Army and came back to this one because this Army is much better," Roberts said as he discussed today's soldiers and leadership.
Modern Army allure
During Vietnam, soldiers were drafted, and training and leadership was sometimes lacking. Today's Army is composed of volunteers and leadership is more focused on training to fight, he explained.
While sitting with troops in his desert combat uniform, Roberts blended into the ranks. He is, after all, a soldier like the rest. He has a life outside of the military. He completes his tasks, lives by the Army values, and puts on his boots just like other service members.
"I don't see myself as being any different than anybody else," he explained. "But I understand." Despite this self-perception, Roberts knows there are certain responsibilities which come with being a Medal of Honor recipient.
"There is a level of expectation and obligations that come with it," Roberts said. "It is hard in one sense but good in another."
For example, Roberts received a full scholarship to the University of Dayton and a new car when he returned from Vietnam. After his 18 year break in service, Roberts feels fortunate to have been granted new opportunities in positions above his former rank.
His obligations are not only to the military.
"In any year, I may do 60 or 70 speeches," Roberts said. "The requests for speeches, stories and interviews can be overwhelming."
While being a Medal of Honor recipient may sound glamorous, Roberts believes otherwise. He considers himself fortunate to have survived the experience, and sees it as such - an experience. While the event added a medal to his uniform, he has declined to let fame change who he is.
"I've tried not to change," Roberts explains. "In fact, my focus is on the basics. I have an obligation to you and anyone sharing the same uniform. I have an obligation to be able to do my job and to be in a foxhole next to you, to be able to protect you and the environment."
Who we are
Since the historic convoy in Vietnam, Roberts learned a major lesson on how to define oneself.
"I learned a long time ago that you are no better than your next award," he explained. "But awards, they are just material. I think people define themselves by things like that and I'm not going to let someone define me by what award I get -- they can give me an award, but only I know if I've earned it."
Awards, medals and recognition serve another purpose, as well. "I believe you can translate who you are through your past. But once you stop striving, it's over."
From high school and Vietnam, civilian life and his present military career, Roberts built his philosophy on leadership. He also learned from a hero, legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.
"He always sat in his chair -- even in overtime he never got up. He did this because he believed his job was done by that point," he added. "He believed that if he had taught the players all they needed during the year, they would do well."
Roberts frequently joined convoy missions to Iraq and enjoyed riding along and watching from the back seat. He observed his troops but did so from a distance. Though he has more experience and stories than most, he has faith in his troops the way Wooden had in his players, he says.
"I let the convoy commanders do their job even though I outrank them," he said as he further explained his leadership philosophy. It is their job -- that young soldier up front is going to have to make a decision. Their decisions are the ones the rest of the company is going to have to live with. My job is to make sure soldiers are prepared to make those decisions."
Roberts speaks from the heart. Maybe this is because he was that young soldier on the front lines or maybe it is just part of his leadership style. Either way, Roberts believes in his troops and they believe in him, too.
"Soldiers need to have confidence in their leadership and know that their leadership is fighting for what they need," he said. Throughout his time in the service, Roberts has shared good times and bad with troops. Roberts personally knows the face of the enemy and the heart of today's soldier and says he would re-walk his life path over again if he had to.
"I have not had a job in the Army that I haven't enjoyed," Roberts said with a smile.
The same pride he takes in his soldiers he finds out on the range.
"I shoot a great deal," he said. "I've always looked at it as my obligation to be a good marksman and that grew into competing." The practiced rifleman fires more than 20,000 rounds a year and is a winner of many competitions.
From Vietnam to Kuwait and through hard times and good, LTC Gordon Roberts has proven himself to be an exemplary soldier, marksman, comrade and citizen. Where his future will go from here he does not know, but Roberts does not fret. The path was not always easy and presented obstacles along the way, but with each step he leaves a footprint which will be remembered forever in military history. And there is still much road ahead.