A retired warrant officer received a Bronze Star last week for actions he took some 40 years earlier as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam.
Retired Army Chief Warrant Officer Phillip Daniel O’Donnell of Stafford, Va., his wife Monica, son Antonio, other family members, friends and Army representatives gathered in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., March 12 for a ceremony that awarded him the medal.
O’Donnell, who turns 70 in August, had been trying to obtain the medal for several decades with little success until the office of U.S. Sen. James Webb (Va.) intervened. Webb staffers helped find lost paperwork documenting the warrant officer’s exploits.
O’Donnell said that through the decades he engaged service organizations like the VFW, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Military Personnel Records in St. Louis, Mo., and other entities in attempts to get the medal.
Representatives at Military Personnel Records would say, “Send me a copy of the citation,” he related “And I’d say, ‘Well I don’t have a copy of the citation, so I can’t do that.”
He gave up for awhile. But last year O’Donnell was diagnosed with lung cancer, a service-related disability attributed to his exposure to Agent Orange while in Vietnam.
“When I got diagnosed with cancer, I thought I’d make one more try because I’d like my 4-year-old son to have [the medal],” he said. “I tried for 40 years and the senator’s office got it for me in two weeks.”
“An award was authorized many years ago, but it was lost in the process,” Webb explained in opening remarks at the ceremony. “I want to thank the [Department of Army] for going back to the records and Debbie Burroughs on my staff [for resolving the issue].”
“We’re a staff that feels very strongly about military service,” said Webb, a former Marine officer who received the Navy Cross and served as secretary of the Navy. He introduced staff members at the ceremony with military backgrounds, looked at the guest of honor and said, “Mr. O’Donnell, you’re among friends here.”
Before Webb pinned the medal on O’Donnell, Col. Laura Richardson of the Army Senate Liaison Office read the citation, signed by Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh, awarding O’Donnell the medal. O’Donnell was cited for his performance as a helicopter pilot flying gun support in Vietnam from 1970 to 1971.
O’Donnell’s “rapid assessment and solution of numerous problems inherent in a combat environment greatly enhanced the allied effectiveness against a determined and aggressive enemy,” the citation read. “Despite many adversities, he invariably performed his duties in a resolute and efficient manner. Energetically applying his sound judgment and extensive knowledge, he has contributed materially to the successful accomplishment of the United States mission in the Republic of Vietnam. His loyalty, diligence, and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Army.”
“It’s a very emotional day,” said O’Donnell after receiving the medal. “I have lung cancer so that makes it even more special. I don’t have many days left.”
O’Donnell, who was promoted to lieutenant colonel but reverted to Chief Warrant Officer upon his retirement, downplayed the actions for which he received the medal.
“You just get up and go do it,” he said. “There’s no question about it. There are other guys out there who did the same thing I did.”
O’Donnell spent 10 years in the Marines before entering the Army’s warrant officer program in 1969. He said he did so largely for the opportunity to become a helicopter pilot.
Before enlisting in the Marines, O’Donnell spent ages 8 through 17 as a circus and Vaudeville performer. He comes from a family of acrobats and jugglers. “I was raised by Ringling Brothers,” he joked.
In fact, O’Donnell has been nominated for induction into the International Jugglers Association Hall of Fame. “It’s still pending,” he said.
Because of this background, O’Donnell said he was in top physical condition with good hand-eye coordination when he entered the service. “I didn’t have the ability to take orders though,” he admits. “I had to adapt to that.”
After retirement from active duty, O’Donnell was a building maintenance specialist with the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Hel expressed his support for troops currently deployed overseas.
“They’re doing a hell of a job and I’m proud of them. I wish there was some way I could be there also.”
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