National Security
4:52 pm
Wed January 29, 2014

A Medal Of Valor, 30 Years In Coming

Originally published on Wed January 29, 2014 6:26 pm

The year is 1984: A Soviet defector dashes across the Korean border — chased by North Korean troops. American troops shield him and open fire on the North Koreans. There are dead and wounded on both sides.

Now, 30 years later, one of those Americans is finally receiving his medal for bravery.

Mark Deville was just 19 on that November day in 1984, part of an American Army unit patrolling the tense border between North and South Korea.

Deville didn't know what he was facing. The only message was: Shots fired. Deville and his squad spilled out of their truck, formed a line and starting moving through some scrub trees.

"Then I started hearing the cracking, the sonic booms of the rounds coming by us," he recalls. "At first, I'm like, 'What the ...."

His squad leader, Sgt. Rick Lamb, found the defector cowering in a bush. North Korean soldiers were after him, the rounds from their assault rifles ripping through the leaves.

He remembers a message squawked over the radio: Two soldiers, an American and a South Korean were wounded.

Deville was born and raised a Catholic,

But at that point, "Thou shalt not kill," he says, "went out the window."

The squad dashed forward, flanking the enemy force. They could see shadows of the North Korean troops in the trees. The two sides were just 15 feet apart, when the North Koreans surrendered, and started recovering their dead.

Lamb, the squad leader, and Deville recall the moment.

"We saw at least five to six bodies," Lamb says.

How long did it last?

Deville replies: "It felt like four hours, but it was 45 minutes."

That 45-minute firefight was front page news. President Ronald Reagan wrote about it in his diary, and was surprised that the Soviet Union didn't react.

"They haven't mentioned it," Reagan wrote. "The Soviets must be serious about their decision to meet with us."

It was one of the earliest hints of a thaw in the Cold War.

But for Deville and his squad, the incident seemed to just fade away. Still, after years of prodding by Congress, they were awarded Silver Stars — the third highest award for valor — in the summer of 2000.

One of those medals was set aside for Mark Deville. The problem was none of his old comrades could find him — until last year. Deville was working as a prison guard in Florida.

"I was talking with a buddy of mine at work about the unit. And I always referred to it as the unrecognized ranger battalion," Deville says.

"He said, 'Did you ever Google yourself?'" Deville says. "So I Googled myself and it said, Mark A. Deville, recipient of the Silver Star. And I said, 'That ain't me.'"

That Google search helped lead to Tuesday's Pentagon ceremony. Deville fidgeted in his black suit. His old squad was seated in a row with him. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey was there to pin on the Silver Star.

"You are gathered together again as a group as you were nearly 30 years ago in support of your country," Dempsey said.

Deville stood and looked at his fellow soldiers.

"It was a special unit. You said band of brothers, sir. And that's exactly what, excuse me ...," he said before trailing off.

Deville couldn't continue. The soldier-turned-prison-guard looked away. Tears filled his eyes.

"I hope the inmates don't see that," he said.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Now, a tale from another era, the Cold War. It was 1984. A Soviet defector dashed across the Korean border chased by North Korean troops. American troops shielded him and opened fire at the North Koreans. There were dead and wounded on both sides. Now, 30 years later, one of those Americans is finally receiving his medal for bravery.

NPR's Tom Bowman reports.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Mark Deville was just 19 on that November day in 1984, part of an American Army unit patrolling the tense border between North and South Korea.

MARK DEVILLE: I remember, this is for real. You know, load trucks, this is for real.

BOWMAN: Deville didn't know what he was facing. The only message was: Shots fired. Deville and his squad spilled out of their truck, formed a line and starting moving through some scrub trees.

DEVILLE: Then I started hearing the cracking, the sonic booms of the rounds coming by us, you know. At first, I'm like, what the...

BOWMAN: His squad leader, Sgt. Rick Lamb, found the defector cowering under a bush. North Korean soldiers were after him, the rounds from their assault rifles ripping through the leaves. And what was running through your mind when this was going on?

DEVILLE: To tell you the truth, the first thing, I was born and raised Catholic and it was thou shalt not kill, but...

BOWMAN: Deville's voice trails off. He remembers a message squawked over the radio, two soldiers, an American and a South Korean were wounded.

DEVILLE: We just knew that they went down. They were shot. They were down. And that's whenever thou shalt not kill went out the window. And I was just taking all commands from (unintelligible).

BOWMAN: The squad dashed forward, flanking the enemy force. They could see shadows of the North Korean troops in the trees. The two sides were just 15 feet apart when the North Koreans surrendered and started recovering their dead. Squad Leader Sgt. Rick Lamb recalled the moment with Deville.

RICK LAMB: We saw at least five to six bodies.

BOWMAN: How long did this last?

DEVILLE: What do you think, 45 minutes?

LAMB: Yeah. It felt like four hours, but, yeah, it was probably about 45 minutes.

BOWMAN: A 45-minute firefight that was front page news in the New York Times and a lead story on NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

SIEGEL: Gunfire shattered the tense truce along the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea last night. The United States...

BOWMAN: President Ronald Reagan wrote about the firefight in his diary, and was surprised that the Soviet Union didn't react. They haven't mentioned it, Reagan wrote. The Soviets must be serious about their decision to meet with us. It was one of the earliest hints of a thaw in the Cold War.

But for Deville and his squad, the incident seemed to just fade away. Still, after years of prodding by Congress, they were awarded Silver Stars, the third highest award for valor, in the summer of 2000. One of those medals was set aside for Mark Deville. The problem was none of his old comrades could find him until last year. Deville was working as a prison guard down in Florida.

DEVILLE: I was talking with a buddy of mine at work about the unit. And I always referred to it as the unrecognized ranger battalion.

BOWMAN: Two guys just trading war stories.

DEVILLE: He said, did you ever Google yourself. So I Googled myself and that's how I found it. It said, Mark A. Deville, recipient of the Silver Star. And I said, well, that ain't me.

BOWMAN: That Google search helped lead to yesterday's Pentagon ceremony. Deville was fidgeting in his black suit. His old squad was seated in a row with him. Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey was there to pin on the Silver Star.

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: You are gathered together again as a group as you were nearly 30 years ago in support of your country so congratulations, Mark, I'm really honored to be part of this.

BOWMAN: Deville stood and looked at his fellow soldiers.

DEVILLE: It was a special unit. You said band of brothers, sir. And that's exactly what...

BOWMAN: Deville couldn't continue. The old soldier-turned-prison-guard looked away. Tears filled his eyes.

DEVILLE: I hope the inmates don't see that.

BOWMAN: Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.