Robert Larry Rodabaugh was looking for a change in his young life and just happened to be passing an armed forces recruiting station. Out of curiosity, he went inside. And by the time he left, he had arranged for a desk job at an Army base in Germany.
Rodabaugh, in his own words, offers a blunt assessment.
“I was 23, and, at the time, I was kind of floundering with what I was doing with my life,” Rodabaugh says.
The turn of events that led him to the military turned him into a highly decorated war hero.
“When I entered the Army,” he says, “I took a battery of tests, and they offered me infantry Officer Candidate School, and I applied and went for 23 weeks and graduated as a second lieutenant.”
So much for the desk job.
By October 1966, he had arrived in Vietnam and was soon fighting the enemy with fellow members of Company B, 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division. In the city of Tuy Hoa, Company B patrolled the foothills of the Central Highlands, often engaging Viet Cong guerrillas in firefights, ambushes and occasional hunts for well-hidden snipers.
The company then headed to the Cambodian border in the “thick of the Central Highlands” to engage an enemy who thought nothing of ducking into Cambodia.
“There were three North Vietnamese army divisions that worked out of Cambodia,” he recalls. “We would patrol north and south, up and down the border. We weren’t allowed to cross the border. They would come across the border.
“Their object was to cut South Vietnam in half. Our object was to prevent that. It was open warfare. They would come in and kick the heck out of one of our units.
“For example, on March 22, 1967, they nearly wiped out A Company. On May 18, 1967, it was our turn. We got up in the morning with 120 guys and proceeded north along the border and ran into a reinforced battalion of North Vietnamese, approximately 700.
“By the end of the night, we had approximately 50 dead and 35 wounded. One of our platoons had been completely overrun.”
Among the wounded was Rodabaugh, but he continued to direct his soldiers, attempting to secure a perimeter and, at the same time, keeping his commander informed of the situation in his sector.
When his radio operator was gravely wounded, Rodabaugh started making his way back and forth through the heavy fire to update the captain, even though he was shot in the right arm.
According to the citation for the Silver Star he received for gallantry, “… when the order came to withdraw and reorganize, he stayed behind and provided cover fire until all his men had withdrawn.”
It should be noted that Rodabaugh suffered his wound at 10 a.m. and continued to serve until 6 p.m., when at last he was taken by medevac from the battle site to a field hospital.
“The bullet hit my right arm and kind of peeled it back like a banana,” Rodabaugh recalls.
The wound was so severe that he was taken first to Japan for extended medical care before being flown back to the United States, where he continued to mend and ultimately had a successful recovery with only slight nerve and muscle damage.
Rodabaugh continued to serve stateside and was honorably discharged March 18, 1968.
Decades later, in retelling his experiences, Rodabaugh says his story would not be complete without mentioning that the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, was among the three most highly decorated battalions that served in Vietnam.
“In a four-month period, we had four Medal of Honor winners, and the entire unit received a Presidential Unit Citation,” Rodabaugh says, adding that he does not consider himself a war hero despite his own bevy of medals.
In civilian life, he worked as a U.S. Postal Service mail carrier and married Diane Rybaczeski. They raised two children, Eric and Wendy.
These days, he says, “I spend my time gleefully in retirement.”
And what of that desk job he had originally sought in the Army?
“I didn’t give a second thought to that job from the time I applied for Officer Candidate School.”
Robert Larry Rodabaugh, 72
• Hometown: Indianapolis
• Residence: Depew
• Branch: Army
• Rank: First lieutenant
• War zone: Vietnam
• Years of service: 1965-68
• Most prominent honors: Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman Badge, Presidential Unit Citation
• Specialty: Infantry platoon leader