Nearly 50 years ago, Roger Donlon, of Saugerties, New York displayed incredible bravery when his outpost was attacked by Vietcong. Outnumbered 3-1, he led his Special Forces team in a successful defense of the outpost, rescuing wounded men despite suffering repeated serious injuries from mortar fire himself. For this, he was awarded the first Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War.
Last week, the Saugerties Town Hall dedicated a new sign for the Roger H.C. Donlon Saugerties Town Hall. A previous board had voted to name the hall after Donlon, whose name also graces the auditorium above Village Hall, but it wasn’t officially done until last year.
The rear of the sign now contains a picture of Donlon and a brief description of the battle. The headline reads, “The First Recipient of the Medal of Honor of the Vietnam War, 1964.”
Two of Donlon’s brothers, Paul and Jack, as well as his wife, Norma, attended the Oct. 10 ceremony. Several former schoolmates also attended.
Jack Bartells, who went through school with Donlon from first grade to graduation with the class of 1952, said Donlon “always wanted to be a soldier. He came from a military family, and he and four brothers served in the military.”
Among the 30 or 40 people attending the ceremony were Town Board members Jimmy Bruno and Fred Costello, County Legislator Mary Wawro, State Assemblyman Pete Lopez, Town Clerk Lisa Stanley, Receiver of Taxes Suzi Filak, Police Chief Joseph Sinagra, building inspector Alvah Weeks and Highway Superintendent Douglas Myer.
Donlon, who now lives in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, displayed a compass that he had been given during a visit to Saugerties in 1989, and said he carries it with him at all times. “Along with this compass they gave me the Tenderfoot certificate signed by my daddy. Daddy was on his death bed, and this was saying that he gave authority and approval that the Scout leaders like George Thornton, Tommy Becker, Coach Cahill, Berger and others could become my surrogate fathers. They represent a cross section of our community, a cross section of people who served at home, a cross section of people who served abroad in the armed service. Our whole community is built on service. We’re all proud Saugertiesians. I had Paul [a brother] do a little arithmetic this morning. Between Paul, Jack and I we represent 250 years of Saugerties service; about 65 of those years are in uniform. This compass is a tangible reminder to me, and I carry it with me and have ever since 1989. It is a reminder to me to check my compass every day. Not just my GPS, but my financial compass, my educational compass and certainly my spiritual and moral compass. That’s the message that I got from my leaders, my teachers and my parents.”
Noting that he was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, Donlon said, “God gives us the strength to carry on for the next battle.”
He drew laughter when, referring to his hand shaking, he said, “I’m not waving at the pretty girls.”
About the surroundings of the town of Saugerties, Donlon commented, “Watching the sunset as we drove in last night I couldn’t help but think God has given us a beautiful setting where we live and we owe it to Him to be beautiful people and loving people and friendly people.”
Donlon visited Saugerties High School Thursday morning as part of a delegation involving a dozen veterans. Donlon said, “The young students at the school were very respectful and cheerful and attentive. What’s happening with this generation is what happened to you and me in previous generations.”
“People have such wonderful memories of you,” Supervisor Kelly Myers told Donlon. “I have been hearing stories about you all week. It has been wonderful.”
Donlon attended St. Mary’s Elementary School, Myers said, noting that he was the eighth child in a family of 10 children. He was a member of Boy Scout Troop 36, where he attained the rank of Life Scout, Myers said. Among the lessons of scouting that have stayed with Donlon are the need to do one’s duty to God and country and the value of leadership and community service. Turning to Donlon, she said, “You are an example of the best that Saugerties has to offer. We are so proud you are from here.
“Col. Donlon, the town of Saugerties is humbled by your presence and we are proud to dedicate Town Hall today in your honor in hopes that you will inspire future generations of Saugerties youth to live up to their highest ideals, greatest potential and strongest faith,” Myers concluded.
Assemblyman Pete Lopez told Donlon he “really epitomizes what we value in our society: love of country, love of the freedoms we enjoy, love of community—and certainly the community loves you.” Quoting Abraham Lincoln, Lopez said, “I love to see a man proud of the place in which he lives. I love to see a man live so his community may be proud of him.” This would certainly be true of Col. Donlon, Lopez said.
The Town Board voted in April 2012 to name the building for former Supervisor Greg Helsmoortel, unaware of the 2001 resolution to name it for Col. Donlon. Shortly afterward, several residents informed the board that the building had already been named for Donlon, and in a compromise, the board voted to name the building for Donlon and the wing that was renovated later for Helsmoortel.
The inscription on the new sign reads:
Roger H.C. Donlon
First Medal of Honor recipient of the Vietnam War, 1964
A native of Saugerties, N.Y. and an alumnus of the Rip Van Winkle Council, Boy Scouts of America, Troop 36, Roger Donlon always thought the military was to be his destiny in life. In the spring of 1964, while serving as commander of Army Special Forces Team A-726 in Vietnam, then-Captain Donlon’s outpost was overrun by a strengthened Vietcong battalion. Outnumbered by more than 3-1, the troops under Captain Donlon’s leadership were nevertheless able to repel the enemy’s attack. Though he was repeatedly and severely wounded by mortar fire, Captain Donlon was able to continue directing the defense of the camp. In spite of his injuries he rescued numerous wounded troops while dragging supplies and ammo to his men. For his heroic action on that fateful night, Captain Donlon was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Lyndon Johnson, which he humbly accepted on behalf of the nine surviving members of Team A-726.
“It was a team effort,” says Donlon, “and I was simply the designated leader.”