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A reluctant hero, grateful for his life

Stephen T. Banko III, the most decorated Vietnam veteran in Western New York, never wanted to go into the military.

To try to avoid being drafted, he accepted a basketball scholarship at the University at Buffalo, but ended up leaving UB when his grades left him no alternative.

"I was flunking out," he said.

He then took a job as a longshoreman on the Buffalo waterfront for several months and saved enough to restart his college career at St. Bonaventure University in the fall of 1965.

At Bonaventure, as was the case with many other higher learning institutions at the time, ROTC training was mandatory for the first two years. But Banko, who had his eye on a journalism degree, proved a poor military student.

"I got a letter in May 1966 stating I was not invited back to school due to my failure of the basic ROTC course," Banko recalled.

He continued to prove resourceful in trying to duck the draft.

"I got a scholarship letter from a brand new school, John Kennedy College, in Wahoo, Neb., but I got drafted because the school wasn't accredited," he said.

His loss in the academic world was the military's gain.

At 21 years old, Banko arrived in Vietnam on Jan. 20, 1968.

"I got there eight days before the start of the Tet Offensive, which was kind of the turning point of the war. The North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong attacked everywhere in the country from the demilitarized zone to the delta," Banko said.

He sustained his first battle wound Feb. 8, hit in the right calf with a bullet that remains there to this day. Three times more in 1968, he would suffer battle wounds, two in firefights and one from a punji stick, a sharpened bamboo stake dipped in feces.

By December, Banko was serving with the 7th Cavalry, which dates back to Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who lost his life at Little Bighorn. On the morning of Dec. 3, 1968, Banko awoke to what would be the biggest battle of the year in Vietnam.

"We started with 125 men in our rifle company and during the course of the next 5 1/2 hours every man was killed or wounded. I got shot twice, first at 11 in the morning and that broke my right leg; and at 2 in the afternoon, I got shot three inches away under my right knee cap.

"In between, I was hit three times with multiple shrapnel and I lost all of my fingernails on both hands. When I put out the fire on a wounded GI, I had third-degree burns on both hands and the nails fell off.

"Right after the first bullet wound in the leg, an enemy rocket struck the anthill I was using for cover. It blew the barrel off the machine gun I was using. I was really about to die. I was about 50 yards ahead of everyone else and a guy saw that a rocket hit the anthill. He got up and ran the 50 yards to bring me another machine gun. He was struck four times and died behind that anthill, but got the gun to me, which allowed me to cover my retreat."

Banko says he has never forgotten the name of that soldier, whose selflessness allowed him to escape -- John Holcomb, who hailed from Oregon.

The nation honored Holcomb posthumously with its top military honor, the Medal of Honor.

"My reward was to grow fat, old and bald in the joy of watching my grandchildren grow up," Banko said, with a dash of irreverence toward himself.

But to underline his reverence for Holcomb, he added:

"Over my computer in every office I've worked at I have the rubbing from Holcomb's name at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. That's a constant reminder of how I got to where I am," Banko said, referring to the imprint made by rubbing paper over the names of soldiers inscribed on the memorial.

Banko, who works as the field director for the Buffalo office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, has spoken to more than 100 audiences across the country over the years about war and warriors.

On this past Memorial Day, lines from one of Banko's speeches were quoted by Vice President Biden at America's most sacred ground for fallen veterans -- Arlington National Cemetery.

Banko, told ahead of time that Biden might quote him at the ceremony, sat in his South Buffalo living room watching the vice president on TV.

This is what Biden said:

" 'Most people think the battlefield -- think of the battlefield as the province of hate, fear, and anger. When you've fought and you've bled and you've risked and you've survived, you recognize it as something entirely different.

'Hatred would hardly be enough to make a soldier leave a safe position to rescue a buddy. Fear would never make one share the last sip of water with a dying comrade. And anger would never motivate a nurse to stand tall in a bloody operating room for half a day or longer to put a blasted soldier or Marine back together.

'No, only love -- only love can motivate that kind of heroism. Only love can trigger that kind of courage.' Only love."

Banko says he is touched, deeply touched, that his words were cited by the vice president at Arlington.

"I cried sitting in my living room."

***

Stephen T. Banko III, 63

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Buffalo

Rank: Sergeant

Served: Army, Vietnam

Years of Service: April 1967 -- January 1970

Honors: 4 Purple Hearts, 2 Silver Stars, 4 Bronze Stars for Valor

Specialty: Infantry

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