When John Rankin of Shelby dropped out of college at age 21 and got drafted into the military, he’d never met anyone of Hispanic or Jewish descent or spoken to an African-American his own age.
The army changed that.
Staff Sgt. Felix Conde-Falcon from Puerto Rico was a father figure for the young infantry soldiers of the diverse 82nd Airborne who called themselves “ground pounders” in the Vietnam War. Rankin considered Conde-Falcon an old man at 31, but still one of the guys and someone to trust in combat.
On April 4, 1969, while leading a sweep through a North Vietnamese Army bunker complex near the Cambodian border, Conde-Falcon moved out ahead of his platoon and charged the first bunker, tossing grenades as he went. He jumped on top of the bunker and lobbed a grenade inside. He destroyed two more bunkers the same way and was rushing toward a fourth when he was shot and killed.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
Standing nearby, Rankin watched as the staff sergeant’s body was carried away. Nearly every day since then, Rankin has thought of Conde-Falcon and the way he cared about people.
On Tuesday, Rankin and three other former 82nd Airborne soldiers from Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania will be at the White House when President Barack Obama awards a posthumous Medal of Honor – the nation’s highest combat honor – to Conde-Falcon.
Conde-Facon is getting the award because of a 2002 Congressional Act that ensures some veterans weren’t overlooked because of prejudice. He previously got the Distinguished Service Medal, the nation’s second-highest military award, and that’s being updated along with 18 others. A total of 24 Medals of Honor will be awarded on Tuesday.
“It’s a rare opportunity,” said Rankin, 67, a retired personnel manager and insurance salesman. “Sgt. Conde was our platoon leader and we were all together the day he died. He was willing to give his life for his country – he told us that. Being there will make me feel proud and very humbled.”
Rankin arrived in Vietnam as a replacement in Company D, 1st Battalion, 505th Infantry Regiment, Third Brigade of the 82nd Airborne. The Third Brigade had deployed from Fort Bragg in February 1968 after the outbreak of the bloody Tet Offensive.
At a base camp outside the city of Hue, Rankin met his new platoon leader, Conde-Falcon. The 30 soldiers in Company D included other Hispanics, African-Americans, and Jews.
Rankin recalls they all worked well together as a team and looked up to Conde-Falcon.
“He was a fatherlike leader for us,” said Rankin, whose own father had been killed in a car wreck. “He was nice and jovial and never talked mean. All we did was (complain) and moan, but he never complained and always had a smile. He tried to pump you up and make you feel good.”
In the spring of 1969, eight months after Rankin joined Company D, the unit moved to the Cambodian border, where the fighting intensified.
“It was the worst area we’d been in,” he said. “We were losing a lot of guys.”
On April 4, they entered a North Vietnamese Army bunker complex that was later identified as a battalion command post.
Conde-Falcon led the way under intense fire that finally brought him down. A Distinguished Service Cross citation mentioned his “extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty.”
For Rankin and the others, there was no time to mourn that day; they had to keep fighting. On April 28, leg wounds put Rankin in the hospital for three weeks. He reported back to the company but spent only one more month in the field.
Coming home to Shelby, Rankin got on with his life and later dealt with war-related emotional issues. He never forgot the platoon leader and wondered what happened to his young son.
Now, he’ll get to meet Conde-Falcon’s son, Richard, who was 3 when his father was killed. He’ll also be attending Tuesday’s presentation.
Recently, Rankin connected with Richard Conde by email.
Conde, 48, who lives in Temple, Texas, said stories about his father from Rankin and the other soldiers are “giving me a part of my dad I never had.”
“They’re everyday guys,” he said. “But they’re heroes to me.”