JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas -- An Air Force retiree received a Bronze Star Medal with valor and a Purple Heart at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph's Taj Mahal Feb. 15, nearly 48 years after rescuing officers and protecting military resources during a deployment to Vietnam in 1965.
Placido Salazar, who joined the Air Force in 1956, was stationed at Randolph from 1966 to 1974 and retired from service in 1976 after several deployments, including a four-month stay he would never forget. Salazar volunteered to deploy to Vietnam, and was stationed at Bien Hoa Air Base, Republic of Vietnam, from August to November 1965. Salazar was part of the 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing belonging to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.
The wing, which was deactivated in 1966, was a high-altitude reconnaissance wing and the first U.S. Air Force wing to operate the Lockheed U-2, a plane known for gathering intelligence prominently during the Cold War.
At Bien Hoa, Salazar was part of a team that decrypted numerically garbled messages from allies in Vietnam. His team worked in a compound across from the base's central command post.
On Aug. 21, 1965, Salazar was woken up at midnight by a young Airman who delivered a message that needed decrypting.
"I walked to the command post to sign for the message and as soon as I opened the command post door, all hell broke loose," Salazar said. "Bombs went off all around us, one right after the other." He secured the encrypted message in his hand by placing it in a safe located in the room.
Salazar then realized his commander, who was in nearby sleeping quarters sedated and bandaged from a recent burn injury, was a vulnerable target.
"I ran outside to check who was on guard, but nobody was near the guard gate, so I closed the gate, slipped in a padlock and then ran to the sleeping quarters - a mobile home - to grab the commander," Salazar said. "I put one arm around his waist and my other arm around his shoulder and dragged him to the command post." After supporting the colonel to the underground command post bunker, Salazar backtracked to assist two other senior officers at the sleeping quarters to safety while mortar rounds exploded in the area.
At one point in between helping the officers, Salazar saw a white flash from a bomb that caused him to slip and hit his head on the tarmac, knocking him unconscious.
Little time passed before he woke up, secured the remaining officers and advanced directly toward the command post, which contained highly classified documents he then guarded from possible enemy breach until he was relieved.
Years after battling post-traumatic stress disorder, Salazar has focused his energy on the medical care of veterans, especially to those who served before 9/11.
His Bronze Star Medal was approved in 2000 and his Purple Heart was approved in February for injuries he received during the event in Vietnam.
During the awards presentation, retired Col. Colin Chauret, who was Salazar's commander at Randolph, pinned the medals onto Salazar's uniform and spoke about the war veteran's "V" for valor distinction.
"They don't come for free; people have to make sacrifices," Chauret said. "I am honored to pin the medals."