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Marine's Silver Star upgraded to Navy Cross

When Kenneth Altazan walked into his first reunion almost 12 years ago, he expected a lot of smiles and lively conversation with his fellow Vietnam veterans from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 364. Instead, he was given a gift that changed his life.

Former Marines in attendance gave him an audio recording — the product of a chance exchange he had with a surveillance plane pilot — during a heavy firefight with the North Vietnamese Army in 1969. It captured the incident during which then-Sgt. Altazan helped rescue 10 Marines, earning him the Silver Star.

But that award has now been upgraded to a Navy Cross — the Navy and Marine Corps' second highest award for valor, behind only the Medal of Honor — after the recording brought new details of his bravery to light.

"About three weeks ago, a major from the Pentagon called me," Altazan said in an interview with Marine Corps Times on Oct. 15. "He said, 'I'm going to be the first to congratulate you: Your Silver Star is being upgraded to the Navy Cross.'

"I about fell out of my chair."

The upgrade' was a result of the serendipitous exchange between Altazan and a The surveillance plane pilot who had an audio recording of the rescue mission from that day. The pilot, known to Altazan only as Maj. Peterson, had begun began recording his missions as insurance after someone he had been accused him of calling in airstrikes on a friendly position, Altazan said. After the rescue mission that day, During a previous reunion of Vietnam vets, Peterson had passed down his recording of that day's emergency medical evacuation mission to Altazan’s good friend and mission pilot, Pat Donovan, after they had met at a previous Vietnam vets reunion. Peterson's recording proved that Altazan, the crew chief aboard the lead aircraft in the flight of two CH-46 transport helicopters, had left his "Phrog" not only once, but multiple times in heavy combat to rescue Marines in five separate areas. Even after sustaining a severe grueling knee injury, Altazan ran back to reach more remaining wounded Marines.

Altazan, now retired, downplays casually recalls the incident, saying he was just, "picking up a few guys who were having trouble getting to their aircraft" in Quang Nam province, Vietnam, on May 9, 1969. In hindsight, Altazan’s mission wasBut his mission that day was to rescue 10 wounded Marines scattered about open rice paddies under fierce small-arms and automatic weapons fire, according to his citation.  

Kenneth Altazan
Kenneth Altazan

Altazan said he "about fell out of my chair" when he received the news that he would be getting the second highest award for valor.

Photo Credit: DoD screen shot

"At my first reunion ever, I wasn't expecting to get anything like this — the tape, all of it," Altazan said. "When I got it all, it just became an immediate flashback of that day, and it was incredible. You would never expect to get something like this — 30-plus years at the time — after the fact."

Altazan received the audio tape, but also Peterson's log book, after-action report, and his 'knee-board' notes. Altazan said he felt "tickled" to get such a memorable gift.

Year's later, when recalling the '5-Mike' mission, some of Altazan's crew members saw stories based on his citation that they felt "just didn't jive right," he said. They wanted his citation amended with the proof of his extraordinary bravery that they now had.

Before he knew it, Altazan said, his wife — who had saved letters from a Navy corpsman detailing the mission — and his crew members were sending sworn statements about the mission to council members in Louisiana and now-Sen. Bill Cassidy. The notarized statements were also sent to the Marine Corps, which vetted the information for almost six years.

Their efforts finally succeeded. Lt. Gen. Rex McMillian, commander of Marine Corps Forces Reserve, presented Altazan with his Navy Cross during an Oct. 13 ceremony at the USS Kidd and Veterans Memorial Museum in his hometown of Baton Rouge. Hundreds attended, including his close friends and family. Now, his Navy Cross, an American flag once flown from the U.S. Capitol, a key to the city and McMillian's challenge coin sit on his dining room table.

"I found out one thing — the Marine Corps definitely knows how to throw a party," Altazan said.

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