Veteran earned Bronze Star & 3 Purple Heart medals for service in US Army during Vietnam War
In advance of Purple Heart Day, Congressman Brian Higgins is honoring Western New York Purple Heart recipients, including a formal presentation of three Purple Heart medals and a Bronze Star to U.S. Army Sgt. First Class William Roland Hayes for service and injuries sustained during the Vietnam War. Purple Heart Day is annually observed on Aug. 7 to commemorate the valiant service of the men and women who were wounded or lost their lives in battle.
Higgins said, “Sgt. First Class Roland Hayes’ story is one of resilience, breaking barriers during the civil rights movement, and beating the odds to return home safely. It is our honor to tell his story of strength and perseverance as we pay tribute to him and impress upon others the great sacrifices made by those who serve.”
As a young man, Hayes admired the work of the military. He first learned about radio waves as a student at Lackawanna High School and was fascinated by the idea of wartime communication. He was also inspired by the bravery and skill of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, a specialized infantry division trained for air assault operations – and the first troops dropping into action during the Invasion of Normandy.
In 1966, Hayes, just 18 years old, answered the internal tug to serve, voluntarily enlisted in the Army, and was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division, known as the “Screaming Eagles.” Hayes’ division was integral to many major battles and campaigns during the Vietnam War.
The 101st Airborne Division fought in 45 different operations over almost seven years and was the last Army division to leave Vietnam. During this time period, the 101st made the important transition from utilizing planes and parachutes to landing helicopters.
Hayes quickly experienced the same risky operations that inspired his military career, plunging him and his unit into the depths of enemy territory. Hayes was consistently part of the first landing unit, a dangerous position reserved for a group of highly skilled soldiers. These men constantly faced the possibility of death or injury given the uncertain nature of their job.
Hayes’ division was the Army’s most highly decorated airborne unit. Capt. Paul Bucha from his battalion was awarded with the prestigious Medal of Honor for his service in the Vietnam War.
Hayes’ tour in Vietnam had an action-packed start. He arrived right before the Tet Offensive, a major attack by the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong on five cities in South Vietnam. The coordinated attack took place at the end of January of 1968 during the Tet, a Vietnamese New Year celebration that was traditionally a time of decreased fighting. The Tet Offensive was a huge surprise to the U.S. military and South Vietnamese troops.
One of the most important parts of the offensive was the Viet Cong attack on the U.S. embassy in Saigon. The 101st Airborne made up the assault force of paratroopers that landed on the roof of the embassy and successfully removed the Viet Cong from the premises. While this battle was a technical victory for the U.S., the Viet Cong succeeded in inflicting psychological damage on the American people and military alike.
The public believed the Vietnam War would be an easy victory, but the attack on the embassy foreshadowed a military endeavor that was longer and more complicated than anyone could have predicted.
The First Purple Heart
On March 14, 1968, Hayes was injured in action for the first time. While working as an assistant machine gunner, a bullet ricocheted off the barrel of a machine gun and went completely through his right leg.
One of the most remarkable parts of Hayes’ military career was his strong sense of solidarity for and duty to his fellow soldiers. While he was in the hospital after being shot for the first time, he insisted on receiving various combat reports from his unit to stay up-to-date on the progress of the war. Hayes said he recalled feeling an incredible guilt for being away from his unit when they needed him most. He told the doctor that, if he weren’t cleared to return to combat, he would go AWOL in order to return to his men. After just four weeks of recovery, Hayes returned to the rough terrain of the Vietnamese jungle with an only partially healed leg, ready to continue fighting.
The Second Purple Heart
In August of the same year, Hayes was shot a second time, now in his left leg. His battalion landed directly in an enemy-controlled territory. Hayes “pulled point,” standing at the front of the formation – despite his high rank and the dangerous nature of the position – because he was well-versed in recognizing traps and other signs of enemy presence. It was then that a bullet from an enemy machine gun hit him, slicing away a large piece of his left leg. Despite his own injury, Hayes helped to save another wounded soldier before returning to combat the same day.
The Third Purple Heart
One month later, though his platoon believed to have successfully taken over a key North Vietnamese Army position, enemy troops unexpectedly returned. Hayes stood up to fire when a grenade landed directly next to him. He recalled experiencing this moment in slow motion: The grenade sluggishly rolled down a slope away from him before it mercilessly imploded. A chunk of it hit him in the face and knocked him over.
Hayes thought that his face was on fire until a fellow soldier helped him to his feet. Fueled by pain and rage, Hayes continued to fight only minutes after his injury.
The scar remains a visible reminder of that moment.
Higgins’ camp said, “Like other African-American veterans who served, Hayes courageously fought two battles: the war overseas and the fight at home for equal rights. He falls in a long line of military trailblazers. His father, aunt and uncle all served during WWII, defending our democracy while facing unequal treatment both in the military, serving in segregated units, and at home. Their participation in the military during World War II helped to plant the seeds for the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.”
Another uncle, Sgt. Donald Rolls, lost his life in the Korean War. Through the Korean War, segregated African-American units served in every war waged by the U.S., performing in both combat and support capacities.
The Vietnam War, which took place at the height of the domestic civil rights movement, marked the first integrated U.S. military. However, Hayes was not free from racial discrimination during his military career. It was the first time that soldiers of all races worked together so closely, and he recalled the rough integration process of his battalion as well as discrimination when he left his military training base (which was located in the south).
In 1967, he was deployed to work as a cook on the military base in Vietnam. His stint as a cook only lasted three weeks. After a racially charged argument with a highly ranked officer, Hayes was ordered to the front line of combat. Hayes said he believes he was given this difficult and dangerous assignment as a punishment for perceived insubordination. Despite the unforeseen change in assignment, Hayes entered his company in Vietnam as a cook and left as a sergeant.
Higgins’ team said, “Despite the early tensions, animosity quickly drifted away as battles and the enemy brought the men together. Hayes’ unit soon realized that, with defeat and death on the line, color and race meant nothing. Most importantly, in order to leave together, the men needed to fight together. In Hayes’ words, ‘The battlefield knows no colors.’
“This mentality created an unparalleled brotherly bond amongst the Vietnam war soldiers, which had yet to be seen in the U.S. The men’s selfless service and sacrifice allowed them to abandon the social norms of the time and to recognize one another as people.”
Following his honorable discharged in 1968, Hayes worked as a citizen soldier in the Reserve and National Guard branches of the Army. He served as a human relations instructor in the Air Force Reserves from 1975-77 and as a drill instructor in the Army from 1988-98. After his long tenure of service to this country, Hayes earned his GED, and later a Bachelor of Science degree from Medaille College. He worked as an aircraft mechanic and as a correctional officer at the Erie County Detention Center.
Hayes now resides in Cheektowaga with his wife of 25 years, and has nine children and fourteen grandchildren – some of whom have continued his family’s legacy of military service. He has remained active in local and national veteran communities, including designing an original military jewelry line, serving as a greeter at a veteran clinic in Batavia, and working as a docent at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park.
“We thank SFC Roland Hayes for his remarkable service to our country,” Higgins said. “In addition, we thank him for the commitment and passion he displays as a volunteer docent at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park. He enthusiastically shares his experience and knowledge to visitors who quickly recognize his pride and love for our country.”
During a ceremony at the Naval Park, U.S. Army Buffalo Recruiting Company Cmdr. Capt. Randy Warren joined Higgins in formally presenting Hayes with the following medals:
•Parachutist Badge, also known as “Jump Wings,” which is awarded to soldiers who have been trained as a military parachutist and qualified to participate in airborne operations.
•National Defense Service Medal, representing honorable active service as a member of the Armed Forces during the Vietnam War.
•Vietnam Service Medal, awarded to members of the U.S. Armed Forces serving in Vietnam between July 1965 and March 1973.
•Combat Infantryman Badge, awarded to personnel with an infantry or Special Forces occupational specialty who engaged in active ground combat.
•Vietnam Campaign Medal with Device, which recognizes members of allied forces who served in the Vietnam War for a period of at least six months or who were wounded, captured or killed in action. The "1960 Bar" device is given with the medal to indicate the years the war was fought.
•Three Purple Heart Medals: The Purple Heart medal is the oldest American military award that is presented to service members of the U.S. military who have been wounded or killed as a direct result of enemy action. In 1782, President George Washington created the Badge of Military Merit, the first military decoration to be instated in the United States, to recognize heroic actions by his troops.
The Badge of Military Merit was a piece of heart-shaped purple cloth embroidered with the word “merit” in white thread. This award was the predecessor to the modern Purple Heart medal.
The Purple Heart was implemented in 1932 on Washington’s 200th birthday by Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur and officially developed into today’s model by 1944.
•Bronze Star, which is given to members of the military distinguishing themselves by heroic service while engaged in an action against an armed enemy. It is the fourth-highest award presented to the military for acts of merit.
The airborne unit citation presented to Hayes with the Bronze Star reads, “Through his untiring efforts and professional ability, he consistently obtained outstanding results. He was quick to group the implications of new problems with which he was faced as a result of the ever changing situations inherent in counterinsurgency operation and to find ways and means to solve those problems. The energetic application of his extensive knowledge has materially contributed to the efforts of the Unites States Mission to the Republic of Vietnam to assist that country in ridding itself of the communist threat to its freedom. His initiative, real, sound judgement and devotion to duty have been in the highest tradition of the United States Army and reflect great credit on him and on the military service.”