By Michael O’Donnell

It was philosopher and theologian Plato who once said, “A hero is born among a hundred, a wise man is found among a thousand, but an accomplished one might not be found even among a hundred thousand men.” We all know heroes of the past, Alvin York of World War I and Audie Murphy of World War II, but what about the heroes of Vietnam? Among the veterans of Vietnam, there are countless stories of valor, yet they have been largely ignored or forgotten over time. For the 543,400 Americans on the ground at the height of the Vietnam War, the 58,226 who were killed or missing in action, the 211,529 who were wounded, and the 4 million total who served in the Vietnam “theater,” there was one who stood out among all the rest. His name is Staff Sergeant Joe Ronnie Hooper, and not only was he a hero in the Vietnam War; he is also the most decorated soldier in American international combat, even eclipsing both York and Murphy.

Joe Ronnie Hooper was born on August 8th, 1938 in Piedmont, South Carolina. His family moved when he was a child to Moses Lake, Washington, where he attended high school. Hooper grew up a tough kid who knew how to scrap and take care of himself, and would even on some occasions go looking for a fight. This mentality would find itself of use when Hooper enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17 in the summer of 1955. There he served until 1961 when he left for the Army. Joe served multiple tours of duty in Vietnam, one from 1966-67 and another from 1967-68, with D company, 2nd Battalion, 501st Airborne Infantry, 101st Airborne Division. He would return to action in 1969 with special permission from the president. It was while serving in Vietnam that Hooper proved why he would later become the most decorated American soldier of all time.

One of the most noteworthy of all of Hooper’s battles took place on February 21st, 1968, in Hue, South Vietnam. For his actions on this day, Hooper would receive the military’s highest award for valor: the Medal of Honor.

It was dawn on the morning of the 21st. The sun rose over the fields of Hue and painted the sky red, an eerie sight during these bloody days of the Tet Offensive. D Company, 2/501st Infantry, 101st Airborne Division—the Delta Raiders—were assaulting a strong enemy position when they began to receive heavy fire from the Viet Cong. Rockets blazed through the jungle, and the sound of machine guns and other automatic weapons filled the air. Company D’s advance on the enemy was halted by their squad leader, then—Sgt. Hooper, in front of a stream approximately 20 feet-wide. Hooper gathered a few of his men and dashed across the stream, up into the face of the enemy fire. Although the enemy was firing from a protected bunker on the opposite side of the stream, it was quickly taken by Sgt. Hooper and the men that fearlessly followed him. Soon, the rest of Company D began to follow Sgt. Hooper’s example, taking the fight to the enemy. A couple of men were wounded, leaving them exposed to the wrath of enemy fire. Without a second thought, Sgt. Hooper braved the crossfire and went out after his wounded brothers. Hooper helped one man back to safety, then returned for the second man. He got to the wounded soldier, but in the process was wounded himself. Still, he brought the man to safety, saving him from certain death. Returning to the fight, Hooper found SSG Thomas pinned down by enemy fire. Trying to decipher where the shots were coming from, Hooper called through the rattle of gunfire and explosions to SP4 Mount, who was up ahead, to see if there was room to maneuver between two small houses in the direction of the fire.