Jon Cavaiani at the LD

We write with great regret that Jon Cavaiani MOH, one of the 18 or so SF MOH recipients from the Vietnam unpleasantness, is waiting with Barb by his side to cross over sometime soon.

If you didn’t know Jon, you truly missed something, and not just because of this:

He ordered the remaining platoon members to attempt to escape while he provided them with cover fire. With one last courageous exertion, S/Sgt. Cavaiani recovered a machine gun, stood up, completely exposing himself to the heavy enemy fire directed at him, and began firing the machine gun in a sweeping motion along the two ranks of advancing enemy soldiers. Through S/Sgt. Cavaiani’s valiant efforts with complete disregard for his safety, the majority of the remaining platoon members were able to escape. While inflicting severe losses on the advancing enemy force, S/Sgt. Cavaiani was wounded numerous times. S/Sgt. Cavaiani’s conspicuous gallantry, extraordinary heroism and intrepidity at the risk of his life, above and beyond the call of duty, were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself and the U.S. Army.

He has fought the rare cancer, and the ravages of time, with the same bold spirit he brought to the fight against the North Vietnamese Army and the battle to imbue that spirit in following generations of Special Forces soldiers, which is where we came to know him.

Here’s a 2011 interview with the man:

(The reference to South Vietnam in the video is what the

His Medal of Honor award was initially posthumous, because the last American off the site saw him go down hard under a barrage of mortar rounds, and it was only after the award was written and approved that intelligence learned from monitoring DRVN communications that he had survived into captivity. As he was captured in Laos, the DRV did not report him captured, but the US insisted on his return with the other POWs and he and eight or so other named POWs whose cases were raised by Kissinger himself were transferred from DRV captivity in Laos.

While in captivity, he infiltrated a collaborators’ group, the Peace Committee, under command of the camp Senior Ranking Officer, and conducted psychological operations to disrupt their collaboration. He would have been a key witness in the court-martials of the collaborators, had Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird not gotten cold feet about prosecuting the traitors after one disloyal Marine killed himself.

He had a long recovery from his combat wounds (which were never treated by his North Vietnamese captors) and the privations of two years of Vietnamese captivity. As a guest of the North Vietnamese he lost literally most of his body weight, over 100 pounds. As the guest of the Army Medical Activity, he not only returned to Special Forces fitness but he also met and married the love of his life, an Army nurse, thereby causing chaos in rank-conscious Army protocol — where do you seat the sergeant whose wife is a captain (and they became a sergeant-major married to an, IIRC, lieutenant colonel)? The answer is, when the sergeant received the MOH, you find a way to make it work.

Jon never drew attention to his medal, and was uncomfortable with hero worship. He always insisted that he wore the medal on behalf the real heroes — the ones whose deeds went unseen, unrecorded and unrewarded, and who never came home.

After the war he served as the quietest of professionals, and commanders came to know him as a guy who could be depended on to accomplish any task with silent efficiency. His name did come in for cursing at one point, though: circa 1980, 10th Special Forces Group commander Colonel Paris D. Davis assigned Cavaiani a special project: to find a 12-mile rucksack route that ended on at least a mile of up hill. Jon did just that, through a process that can only be described as walking-in-search-of-misery and later received a gag gift from the CO: a pair of battered combat boots, bronzed like baby shoes and mounted to a plaque. Later, many a young troop would slog up the long hill towards the end point at the TASC building, grumbling that he’d like to get his hands on the guy that laid out the course. And some older sergeant would grumble back, “Good luck with that, Nguyen already gave it his best shot.”

One of the high points of Jon’s career was his service as Command Sergeant Major of the 1st SF Operational Detachment — Delta. Originally, he was rejected for the position in the low-profile unit, not because he was in any way unsuitable, but because his MOH raised his profile too much. He forcefully made the point that he was the antithesis of a glory seeker, and the unit commander reconsidered. During that period, no one heard a peep out of Cavaiani, except the other guys in the unit with him, and no one noted his absence (if they did, they assumed he’d retired). When he did retire, he pursued learning, and teaching, and finally spoke about his Medal — always to make the point that he was standing here as a substitute for the real heroes who rest in quiet graves in Arlington, or in places unknown in far jungles and mountains.

Now this remarkable life is drawing to a close, ended by a disease that couldn’t be defeated with all the spirit that beat down everyone from the North Vietnamese Army to a Delta commander who feared an MOH recipient in his ranks would be something like the circus coming to town. He had a team, as always, at the end: his wife Barb, brilliant physicians from Stanford, many old SF guys who did what they could. (Shout out, particularly, to Dick James, who acted as a shock absorber between Jon and Barb and the concerned SF community at large).

You may not have known Jon Cavaiani, but when that bright spirit transitions sometime in the next days, you may rest assured that the sun is a bit dimmer, the stars a light-year further, the very equator a mile shorter for his absence.

Ave atque vale.

 

On Jon Cavaiani:

PBS’s American Valor.

 

UPDATE

SFA and SOA contacts inform us that Jon passed on at 0600 PDT today. SOA sent the following bio (not sure its source, but it quotes SOA’s “Tilt” Meyer, a former RT one-zero):

SGM Jon R. Cavaiani (US Army – Retired) (MOH) died today, July 29, 2014 in Stanford, CA after a prolonged illness. By his side was his wife, Barbara.
Born in England, Cavaiani came to the United States with his parents in 1947 at age four. Though initially classified 4F, due in part to a severe allergy to bee stings, Cavaiani eventually joined the Army from Fresno, California, shortly before becoming a naturalized citizen in 1968.
He went to Vietnam in 1970 with the US Army Special Forces (the Green Berets) and by June 4, 1971, he was serving as a Staff Sergeant in Task Force 1 Advisory Element, USARV Training Advisory Group. This “advisory group” was formerly an element of the top secret and clandestine unit, MACV-SOG. On that day, near Khe Sanh, his outpost came under intense enemy attack. Cavaiani organized the unit’s defense and, when evacuation by helicopter became necessary, he voluntarily stayed on the ground and directed the aircraft, which successfully evacuated most of the platoon. Cavaiani and a small group were left behind. During a major enemy attack the next morning, he ordered the remaining men to escape while he stayed and provided suppressive fire to cover their retreat. He was captured and spent the next two years as a prisoner of war.
Jon R. Cavaiani was released by the Provisional Government of Vietnam on April 27, 1973.
President Gerald Ford presented Cavaiani with the Medal of Honor during a ceremony on December 12, 1974. Cavaiani later reached the rank of Sergeant Major before retiring from the Army in 1996.
According to John “Tilt” Meyer, president of the Special Operations Association and former member of MACV SOG’s RT Idaho, “Jon remained very active in the Medal of Honor Society and the Special Operations Association and continued throughout his life to serve his nation and his community.” Meyer continued, “Jon was an integral part of both the Medal of Honor Society and the Special Operations Association. His friends, family and brothers in arms will miss his broad smile and quick wit, but mostly we will miss his ever present willingness to help others.”
The City of Philadelphia is planning a memorial and arrangements and further information will be posted as they become available.

UPDATE II

We didn’t realize this, but Jon was the last surviving SOG ground branch MOH recipient. Thanks to Bob Noe of SOA for the information. One USAF and two USN SEAL recipients who received their medals for actions with SOG are still with us. (Technically, Jon and the SEALs got their awards after SOG was disbanded; they were assigned to successor organizations, in Jon’s case the “Task Force 1 Advisory Element”).

11 thoughts on “Jon Cavaiani at the LD

  1. Tom Schultz

    I do not know the SGM well. I did have the opportunity to meet and chat with him in a group for a few hours at a recent SOAR.
    A very pleasant low key time. In the filmed interview he states a creed of the leader. “First man on the ground, last man off the ground”.

    Go to a peaceful rest, sir.

  2. Jim Scrummy

    Wow! I am always amazed by the humility of these men. Thank you for a well spent 15 minutes, learning something about a great man.

  3. Matt

    My God, MOH, POW, the Unit and I haven’t ever read his name before. My loss, and my error. I hope he’s written down some of what must be many amazing stories of his adventures.

    Although, as Louis L’Amour would say, adventure is just a romantic word for trouble.

    Matt
    St Paul

    1. Hognose Post author

      Sad to say, I think Jon always thought that would be something he did when he got old. At 70, he didn’t feel old yet, when myelodysplastic syndrome attacked him and robbed him of his and Barb’s future.

      It was a privilege to serve with him, and not because of the Medal, but because of his calm, quiet, and understated leadership.

      There are a bunch of viewpoints that have been lost to us by the relentless march of the actuarial tables. Another one of them that sticks in my mind was Dan Schungel, who managed to be in the thick of most of the stuff that happened in SF in Viet Nam. I don’t believe he kept a diary or wrote any memoirs, and he died young. He was a very rare guy who served in Vietnam at the same time as his daughter did, too(!), so he was well ahead of his time in that, also. Then, L.H. “Bucky” Burruss has written many books, but he’s never told his own story to the public. Bucky has ten silver stars, I think.

      It’s a bit unfortunate that most of the guys who do the amazing things are not the guys who write about it. Me, I’m one of the guys who writes about it, I guess.

  4. Richard W Comerford

    I served with Jon for about 6-months while we worked on COL Potter’s CASMAP concept at 10th SFG. None of us had any idea that he was a MOH recipient. Then one day the good COL Potter decided to invite LTG Patton Jr. (Ret) up for a Dinning In. And there was Jon with his MOH on.

    I cannot remember Jon complaining once about anything (although he may have mumbled from time to time about my muleheadedness) He was always cheerful. Absolutely reliable. He volunteered to do carpentry and other manual labor work in order to simply get the job done. And he did this manual work with a terrible limp from his wounds – again without complaint and always cheerful.

    We will have a Mass said for the repose of his immortal soul.

    May he rest in peace.

    Richard W Comerford

    1. Hognose Post author

      Ah, there’s a name from the past. Thanks for the comment. I also recall Jon showing up at breakfast in Sculthorpe one Flintlock, the one time I remember him showing something off: a couple pieces of shrapnel that had finally worked their way out of him when he was showering that morning.

  5. Jeff

    Second the amazement at the humbleness of these men. Thanks for posting this. Thoughts and prayers to he and his family. Leadership personified…

  6. P. Beck

    Got to know Jon at Devens when he was an SFC (and his wife was a Major, IIRC). I didn’t even find out about the medal until I chanced upon his name in a book in the military reading section at the Ft. Devens library. It was the unusual spelling that gave him away. Helluva good guy. I will miss him. Except for that last uphill stretch of the 12 miler through the Route 2 gate. I sent many a soto voce curse his way over that one.

    Got to hear over beers the story, straight from his former CO, about Jon’s medal, and how it came to be awarded posthumously.

    B.G. Burkett’s book, “Stolen Valor”, had an asterisk next to his name indicating a posthumous award. Which almost got me in a bar fight a couple years ago when I mentioned Jon’s name in the course of the conversation, and a fella I never met threw the BS flag on me, claiming that I couldn’t have known Jon because he was dead because he read it in a book. Took some convincing from me and a couple others that Jon was still very much alive. Funny.

  7. Charlie McKee-USN (Former)

    I met Jon at a SHOT show in Las Vegas during which her penned his name to my MOH book. This book is willed to the MOH association location in South Carolina, and will carry the names of twenty plus names of those incredible men who received the Medal Of Honor. May God bless his wife Barbara, their family and all that have worn the Green Beret.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Thanks, Charlie. Jon was one of a half dozen MOH recipients I’ve met, and one of only a few I served with or under.

  8. Richard W Comerford

    A Mass for the repose of Jon’s soul will be said this Saturday in a Chapel operated by St. Francis Xavier Parish in Hyannis Mass. This is perhaps fitting. The tour guides refer to St. Francis Xavier as “JFK’s home parish”. Perhaps also fittingly the Mas will be the Ancient Latin Mass which will make it a solemn and dignified affair – very appropriate for a distinguished soldier like Jon, the likes of which I think we will not see again. Our 12 year old will serve Mass as one of the Altar Boys. Thanks to the Blog owner for keeping all informed.

    Richard W Comerford

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