Act of valor: Cress receives Bronze Star 40 years later

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 21, 2012

By Shavonne Potts
SALISBURY — In the years following his military service, Sgt. Rodney Cress never thought his platoon leader would one day present him with an award for bravery.
But on Monday, Cress received the Bronze Star Medal with Valor device for heroism during the Vietnam Winter-Spring Campaign.
The medal is given for acts of bravery and heroism, and Cress was recognized for performing just such an act while he served as an infantry squad leader in the U.S. Army’s Charlie Co., 2nd of the 7th, 1st Cavalry Division.
It happened nearly 41 years ago, when Cress was a non-commissioned officer and was part of a 10-man patrol group sent out to search the perimeter of an area in the jungle.
His platoon leader, Lt. Doug Paetz, recounted the incident during a ceremony Monday morning at The Event Center on the Webb Road campus of Cornerstone Church.
“I’m honored,” Cress said after the ceremony. He added the thing that would’ve made it even better was his whole platoon standing alongside him and receiving their own accolades.
Paetz spoke about the patrol and the ambush.
The patrol’s job on March 7, 1971, was to scout an area looking for enemy forces that might pose a threat. The patrol came upon a few unfinished enemy bunkers and found themselves surrounded.
Paetz also told those gathered at the ceremony about a scout dog, Tonie, who alerted the 10-man patrol mere seconds before the ambush.
Cress positioned himself and his squad, getting them out of harms way. He also took out several enemy combatants who were firing on his men from a nearby bunker.
Running out of ammunition, the soldiers began taking on enemy fire from three sides. Supporting forces tried to drop them more ammunition from the air, but it failed to reach them.
The small patrol crawled, walked and ran more than 500 yards through the jungle.
There was significant enemy presence as subsequent airstrikes and a barrage of gunfire was directed on the area of the firefight, leading to several secondary explosions.
Finally, air support was able to help the men, and they made it out of the area without any deaths.
“Somehow, somebody was looking over us,” Cress said while accepting his award and recalling the “ferocious” battle that lasted nearly two hours.
“It’s truly a miracle no one was killed,” he said.
Cress’ leadership was an “inspiration” to his squad and “surely instrumental in the successful completion of their mission that day,” Paetz wrote in a summary of the events he submitted to the government for consideration of the award.
Paetz, who had reconnected with Cress on Facebook, realized Cress had not received the distinction, and in March 2011 he made the recommendation to the Army.
The process took nearly a year, and Cress was notified of the honor a month ago.
U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, who helped Paetz cut through government red tape to secure the award, was on hand Monday and presented Cress with an American flag.
Cress said he counts it a blessing to be able to say he made it back home to Rowan County.
His family sat in the front row Monday, beaming with pride.
“I would definitely say we are proud of him,” said his wife, Millie.
Monday’s ceremony was the first time Millie heard what her husband endured and his men endured that day in the jungle. She was amazed at what he and the other men experienced, she said.
“We are very proud,” said his son, Brian Cress.
Julie Sloop, Rodney Cress’ daughter, and niece Lori Burke were also in attendance.
Contact reporter Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253.