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.
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.
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”).