Just 18 inches of ground separated Al Wall and Sergeant Merle Dentino. They were the last troops out of Cambodia in 1967, waiting for their next assignment in the Vietnam War. Soon they would be going home. It was a pre-dawn morning in June - the men slept on the ground in a camp.
“For some reason I got on the left hand side, he got on the right hand side,” recalled Wall. “Just completely a random act.”
On that sinister, dark foggy morning, a pair of mortar explosions cracked the silence. There were screams, yelling.
“I was actually turned over and was talking to Merle,” Wall said. “Then I realized that he wasn’t responding.”
The moment plays over and over in Wall’s mind -- every day, but especially around Veterans’ and Memorial Day. He can still feel the heat, smell the gunpowder. He remembers just 18 inches away, his pal Dentino was dead, while he was left without a scratch.
“It’s something that comes right back to you,” Wall said.
The blast killed Dentino, another soldier, and wounded 29 others. Members of the Charlie Company First Battalion 12th Calvary Regiment soon learned it wasn’t the enemy that had fired the mortars. It was fellow U.S. Troops. They called it “Friendly Fire.”
“All the guys that were wounded got a Purple Heart,” said Company Commander Michael Christy. “Two that were killed, it was listed as non-hostile, and no Purple Hearts are allowed for non-hostile.”
Christy filed the paperwork for Dentino to receive a Purple Heart. But it never happened; not then, and not decades later. Since it was friendly fire, you had to prove the enemy was involved in order to earn a Purple Heart. Dentino somehow fell through the cracks.
But Christy didn’t forget Dentino, the trusted radio operator who was always at his side, ready to call for backup when things got bleak. Dentino was “solid.”
“If you give your life for your country and then not receive the Purple Heart,” said Wall, “it just doesn’t seem right.”
Several years ago, Dentino’s sister Teresa got a call at her Woodside home from a soldier who had served with her brother. He described the morning of her brother’s death, and why he should have a Purple Heart. Dentino had been decorated before, he had a Bronze Star. He had other awards. He deserved this one.
“He had exemplary service, he was a great guy,” said Teresa Dentino. “He was loved by all the guys in his unit.”
Dentino wrote letters to the military. Five men from his unit did too, including Commander Christy. Christy wrote that even though Dentino died of friendly fire, the shells were intended for the enemy.
“They were less than a kilometer away, the fire was onto them,” said Christy. “So there was need for a Purple Heart.”
On Veteran’s Day, in a ceremony at the Palo Alto Veterans Center, the military finally presented Dentino with her brother’s medal. The letters, the calls, the pressure had finally moved things along. A military commander handed the small case bearing the coveted medal to Dentino. She didn’t tear-up or break down. She called it a joyous day.
“To hear all that outpouring of love and respect from people really is just a heartwarming thing,” she said.
Wall, who lives in North Carolina, said he doesn’t travel much anymore. But there’s no he’d miss this day, this long overdue day. He looked on as Dentino flashed her brother’s medal.
Wall said he still thinks about things; like what if he’d been the one on the right side that morning? Why was he the one here, 43 years later. Wall’s voice trailed off and he stared into the sky, as if the answers to his questions were floating up there somewhere.