An American Hero

“An American Hero” by Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, USA (Ret.)

WILLIAM DAVID HOWSA RAGIN is honored on Panel 1E, Row 62 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

1st Lt. David Ragin was my brother-in-law and my hero. He was killed in action (KIA) on Aug. 24, 1964 in a bloody battle along with three other brave American advisors serving with the Vietnamese 41st Ranger Battalion in Kien Hoa Province, 45 miles southwest of Saigon. The Rangers suffered more than 200 casualties during this violent ambush.

All four received the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for valor. In addition to Dave, the advisors included Capt. Byron Clark Stone, Capt. James Michael Coyle and Sgt. 1st Class Tom Ward.

Dave received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions during this terrible one-hour and 40-minute battle, in which the Viet Cong conducted four major assaults on the Ranger positions. With aggressive courage during the firefight, he killed more than 30 enemy soldiers. He was last seen alive firing a machine gun while covering the withdrawal of his unit. Dave was 25 when he died in the service of his country. He was promoted to captain after his death.

No one was surprised at Dave’s courageous death. He was a senior-ranking cadet at The Citadel, class of 1961. He graduated from Palatka (Florida) High School in 1957 as a very popular and respected student who was a superb athlete and the captain of the football team. The National Guard Armory was named in his honor after his death.

Dave married my sister in 1961 following his graduation from The Citadel. He completed Ranger School and Airborne School at Ft. Benning, Ga. Dave then served with great distinction as an infantry officer in the 101st Airborne Division at Ft. Campbell, Ky. He was given early command of a company and named best company commander in the division prior to volunteering for Vietnam duty.

Dave and my sister had two daughters. Beth has become an accomplished business woman.  Daughter Lisa Ann, whom he never saw, died 55 days after Dave was killed and was buried in his arms at Arlington National Cemetery. The officer who escorted Dave’s body home from combat was his dear friend and high school classmate, Capt. Henry A. Deutsch.  Henry returned to combat in Vietnam and was subsequently killed in action on May 11, 1965.

When Dave was killed, there had only been 189 other Americans KIA in the Republic of Vietnam. The loss of the entire advisory team to 41st Ranger Battalion was a great shock to the country and widely covered in the press at the time.  By 1968, we were suffering more than 1,200 killed in action each month.  By the end of the war, more than 58,000 brave service men and women had perished in Vietnam, and 304,000 were wounded during this longest American war.

Shortly before Dave deployed, he and I spent half the night talking. I was a cadet at West Point and had enormous respect for this dedicated and confident young officer. Dave was filled with enthusiasm and spirit. His dad had fought in World War II, and he wanted to join the long line of American patriots who had served to keep us free. His promising life was cut so short. All of us who knew and served with him are better because of his example of integrity, service and courage.

The caption under David Ragin’s picture in his high school yearbook is his enduring epitaph: “He is so good that no one can be a better man.”