Published Fri, Sep 19, 2008 12:00 AM
By PATRICK DONOHUE
It was at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island where Frank Ambrose's story as a Marine began in 1967 -- a story that ended Friday morning with Ambrose receiving one of the nation's highest military honors.
Ambrose was awarded the Silver Star medal for bravery during the depot's morning s ceremony for his actions in combat during the Vietnam War 40 years ago.
The Silver Star is the military's third-highest decoration, behind only the Congressional Medal of Honorand the Distinguished Service medalsspecific to each armed service.
An Orlando, Fla., native, Ambrose, 60,was drafted into the Army in 1967 but joined the Marine Corps after being intercepted by an opportunistic Marine recruiter at the area recruitment office.
"He asked me, 'Do you want to be in the Army?' I said, 'Nope.' He said, 'OK, do you want to be in the Marines?' And I said, 'Nope.' Then he said, 'Well, you've got to pick one or the other.' And he was there, in that fancy Marine uniform, so I wound up in the Corps," Ambrose said.
Ambrose began as a recruit at Parris Island and was later trained as a machine gunner at Camp Lejeune, N.C.. He was then sent to Vietnam, where he was attached to Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division. That unit would later receive the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest military honor bestowed upon a combat unit.
On Feb. 7, 1968, Ambrose, then a private first class, was part of a 15-man patrol unit escorting a recoilless rifle on a jeep, when the unit suddenly came under heavy rocket, mortar, small weapons and automatic weapons fire from North Vietnamese Army units, according to the award citation signed by Navy Secretary Donald Winter.
Ambrose was seriously wounded in the left arm and chest but held his position and provided suppression fire to allow the surviving Marines to seek safety in a roadside ditch, the citation said.
After climbing into the ditch, an enemy rocket-propelled grenade exploded, killing the Marines on either side of him. The fragments from the RPG hit Ambrose, including pieces of metal that lodged behind his left eye, for which he now bears a long, thin white scar running down the left side of his face.
Ambrose took the ammunition from one of the dead Marines, manned the machine gun, and -- as the last conscious Marine -- provided cover fire to protect the dead and wounded Marines around him.
The citation said that when reaction-force Marines arrived, Ambrose was still providing suppression fire with "enemy forces dead just feet from him."
He and another Marine pulled a severely wounded Marine to safety and administered life-saving first aid, the citation said. A recent unit reunion provided Ambrose with an unexpected update on the Marine they pulled from the jungle that day.
"The Marine that we pulled out that day, I always thought that he had perished, but I found out that he was still alive," he said. "That was icing on the cake."
When a MEDEVAC helicopter arrived, Ambrose refused to evacuate, instead opting to help load other wounded Marines onto the chopper and providing cover fire to allow the helicopter to take off.
After being ordered onto a second helicopter, Ambrose continued firing on the enemy until the helicopter was out of range, according to the citation.
A hospital visit from a general and a gunnery sergeant in Da Nang led Ambrose to believe he was up for a medal for his actions that day but paid such talks little mind, he said.
"We didn't care about medals," he said. "We cared about our brother Marines. It was about each other. There's so many Marines that I saw doing gallant acts that never have been and never will be recognized."
Upon taking his honorable discharge from the Marine Corps as a lance corporal in 1972, Ambrose went into law enforcement, spending 24 years with the Seminole County Sheriff's Office in Sanford, Fla., and thought little about Vietnam until recently.
"I took my honorable discharge, and we just didn't talk about Vietnam for 35 or 40 years," he said. "We didn't come back as a unit. We had to come back individually on commercial airliners, and we had to wear civilian clothes. They didn't want us wearing uniforms because of the reactions from demonstrators in the airport."
At a unit reunion, Ambrose said he found out that his battalion commander, retired Col. William K. Rockey,put Ambrose's name in for the Silver Star in 1968.
Ambrose said he cares little about the 40-year wait he had to endure before having the Silver Star pinned to his lapel.
"What happened? No one knows to this point; that's the golden question," he said. "It doesn't matter. It's here now."
After the stars and stripes were run up the flagpole outside Barrow Hall on Friday morning, Ambrose was called to receive an honor 40 years overdue.
Flanked by the depot's commanding general, Brig. Gen. James B. Laster,and Parris Island's top enlisted man, Sgt. Maj. Andrew Yagle,Ambrose's former battalion commander -- the man who nominated him for the decoration 40 years ago -- had the honor of presenting him with the Silver Star.
"It took you 40 years to get here," Rockey quietly said to Ambrose. "I can't tell you how proud I am of you and how proud I was to have commanded the 3/5."
Several of Ambrose's fellow Marines attended Friday's ceremony, including his machine gun section leader, Ken Fields from Jacksonville, Fla.
"I told Frank that I would come up here and support him, as we supported each other in Vietnam," he said. "It comes down to the old Marine Corps tradition, 'once a Marine, always a Marine.' We support each other in good times, and in bad times, and this is Frank's day."
Ambrose was told by the Marine Corps that he could pick any base in the country at which to receive his medal. He said picking Parris Island was a no-brainer.
"This is where I went to boot camp, and I've always wanted to come back to PI. God, I never thought I'd say that, but it feels right."