Behind enemy lines and on a secret mission in Laos, Army Maj. John Mullins draped himself over his wounded comrade as machine gun fire ripped through their disabled helicopter.
The man would later credit Mullins, of Mountain Park, for protecting him that day in 1969.
Nonsense, Mullins said. Standing up would have been suicide.
U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas presented him with a Silver Star last week, more than 40 years after Mullins helped save two fellow soldiers in a downed helicopter in Laos during the Vietnam War.
His citation was lost when records detailing the event burned. He finished his military career assuming the award was denied. But a chance meeting with a former commander a few years ago restarted the process that resulted in recognition Lucas said was long overdue.
“It was a great honor to present Maj. Mullins with the Silver Star award,” Lucas said. “Mullins has a remarkable story and I am extremely grateful to him for serving our country so courageously in the Vietnam War. His gallant action in the war was very brave and his actions are a true testament to the veterans who have put their own lives in harm's way to protect this country.”
Early ‘black op'
Mullins served in Vietnam as a field operations officer for a project that would be described now as a “black op,” although Mullins said no one used the term back then. Mullins unit inserted undercover agents into Laos and Cambodia at a time when the U.S. officially was not conducting combat operations in those countries, which served as a supply base for the North Vietnamese.
On May 26, 1969, Mullins and Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Altano were inserting agents into Laos in a Vietnamese helicopter. They were hovering about two feet above the ground after dropping off an agent when they came under heavy machine gun fire that sent the helicopter crashing to the ground.
Mullins pulled the agent back into the helicopter. Altano took a bullet to the head. The helicopter's door gunner took a round to the chest.
Mullins, whose first tour was as a combat medic, started treating his wounded companions. Then he looked up to see a dozen enemy soldiers rushing their position. He took hold of the Browning 1919A6 machine gun in the helicopter's door.
“One of them had an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) and went down on his knee to start aiming it,” Mullins said. “I got him first. Shortly after that the machine gun jammed and I used my M-16 to continue returning fire.”
Another machine gun opened fire on the helicopter, and Mullins threw himself over the wounded men. But backup helicopters began to arrive at that moment, using their own guns to suppress the enemy and allow Mullins and his group to escape.
Official records credit Mullins for downing 10 enemies and saving the lives of Altano and the door gunner.
Altano recommended Mullins for the Silver Star to his commander, Lt. Col. Mark Ponzillo. Mullins never heard anything else about the citation, which would have been his second Silver Star. He continued his career, eventually retiring from the military.
Mullins worked security for various federal government agencies and later for judges in South America. He helped train foreign armies friendly to the United States. He consulted for various companies, helped invent a new type of ammunition and served as the inspiration for the main character in a series of video games called “Soldier of Fortune.”
A few years ago, Mullins ran into Ponzillo, who asked him if he ever got his Silver Star. He hadn't. Mullins told him it wasn't a big deal, but Ponzillo disagreed. He wrote Lucas' office.
The original citation had been lost when some records burned in Vietnam. So the military interviewed those who were involved in the mission and restarted the process.
Mullins said getting the medal after all these years doesn't change how he feels about that day or the rest of his career. But it is an acknowledgment of the sacrifices made by so many in the war, he said.
“I joke that it will probably bring a little bit on eBay when I croak,” Mullins said. “What people should remember, especially now that we are engaged in wars all over the place, is the sacrifices people are making out there to preserve our way of life.”