It was May 8, 1968, in La Chu, when then 19-year-old U.S. Army Specialist 4 Robert Martin Patterson singlehandedly bum-rushed five machine gun bunkers, killed eight enemy soldiers and captured a weapons cache, all in the midst of a firefight in the Vietnam War.
The actions that day earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor, the United States military’s highest and most prestigious designation for acts of valor.
Patterson would go on to serve 26 years in the Army and reach the highest enlisted rank, Command Sergeant Major, before retiring in 1991. Post-military, he worked as a representative for the Department of Veterans Affairs for 12 years.
He is one of just 70 living Medal of Honor recipients, out of total of 3,507.
Patterson’s heroism and military career were highlighted during a recent speaking engagement at Land O’ Lakes High School.
The visit was part the school’s yearlong collaboration with the Medal of Honor Character educational program, where teachers use stories of Medal of Honor recipients to help students explore the values of courage, integrity, sacrifice, commitment, citizenship and patriotism.
Patterson’s appearance at the school coincided with this year’s annual Medal of Honor Convention in Tampa, which hosted 46 Medal of Honor recipients from Oct. 22 to Oct. 26.
Seven other Pasco County schools also were visited by Medal of Honor recipients through the program. They were Deer Park Elementary; Centennial, Pine View, Charles S. Rushe, and Paul R. Smith middle schools; and Hudson and Wesley Chapel high schools.
Addressing a lecture hall full of students, the 71-year-old Pensacola resident inspired high schoolers to follow their dreams and strive to do their best.
“The most important part of your life is your education,” Patterson said. “You can be anything that you put your mind to. You want to be a doctor? You can be a doctor. You want to be a lawyer? You can be a lawyer.”
Patterson emphasized the importance of personal integrity and good decision-making, as a means to set up for future success and happiness in adulthood.
“The most valuable asset is your integrity,” he said. “You are the only person that can affect your integrity. Nobody else can. Only you. Don’t ever jeopardize your integrity. Once your lose that integrity, you’ll play hell ever getting it back.”
The overall theme was something he himself battled growing up in a poor family of tobacco farmers in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Patterson was known around his hometown as a troublemaker, dropping out of high school in 12th grade.
“I wasn’t going to be anything in my life, according to all my teachers and everything. (They said) the only thing I’d ever be in my life was nothing but a dirt farmer,” Patterson recalled.
Patterson, of course, would later prove any doubters wrong with his decorated military service, where he also obtained a college degree.
“The only thing blocking you from doing anything in your life, is your own mind,” Patterson said, adding, “I really do regret dropping out of high school because education is really important in your life, and I didn’t realize it until years later.”
For students facing similar challenging life circumstances, Patterson recommended the military as a positive route getting on the right track. He pointed out the service instills punctuality, work ethic and personal responsibility. “Military is not a bad way to get a start in the job market,” he said.
As for his distinguished act of bravery over 50 years ago, it was all a blur.
“I don’t remember my actions at all,” he said. “I was young, dumb and invincible.”
And, he doesn’t consider himself to be a hero, either.
“I just did my job,” he said. “Somebody was going to do it, I just happened to be the one that did it.”
Asked about what it means to don the Medal of Honor, a humbled Patterson said, “It’s not mine. I just keep in sacred trust. It belongs to the (soldiers) that didn’t come back.”
Published November 06, 2019