Posted: 5/2/2001 12:19:19 PM EDT
Wednesday, May 2, 2001
Daughter at Last Hears Tale of Soldier's Death
Combat: For decades she knew little of how her father died during a Vietnam War battle.
By H.G. REZA, Times Staff Writer
A card sent from Vietnam in 1968 for her third birthday is one of the few mementos Kathy Mueller has of a father she never knew. It arrived after her father, Staff Sgt. Lloyd "Frenchy" Mousseau, was killed in a battle that is now one of the tales of the Green Berets.
Mueller, an Irvine resident, is in Texas today, the 33rd anniversary of the battle, to meet with Special Forces veterans and learn more about a man who until recently was nothing more to her but a mystery.
The Texas Legislature will honor Master Sgt. Roy Benavidez, who earned the Medal of Honor in the battle, with the Texas Medal of Honor. At the same time, Vietnam veterans will honor Mousseau as the wounded soldier draped over Benavidez's shoulder in a bronze sculpture commissioned to recognize the men's courage.
Painful memories of the Vietnam War were stirred last week by reports that former Sen. Bob Kerrey's squad killed 21 civilians in a 1969 mission. Americans have sought to put the war behind them for decades, but Mueller, 36, has been trying for just as long to learn more about the battle in which her father died.
For Mueller, who was invited to the ceremony in Austin by the Benavidez family, it will be an opportunity to meet a ghost who was only a name and face in a few old photographs until last May, when she found her father's name on a Web site of Vietnam dead.
She left a message on the site, asking if anybody knew her father. Mueller felt it was time to meet the man she had only known as a hero but not as a person. All she had was an incomplete story about how he had died a hero's death.
In December, she got a reply--from a former Green Beret who had served an earlier tour in Vietnam with Mousseau.
"In my head, in a movie moment, my father's dying words were, 'Tell my daughter I love her.' But that didn't happen, because he was so badly wounded he couldn't talk. I've learned all this since December," Mueller said.
Mousseau, two other Special Forces troopers and nine Nung tribesmen fought a six-hour battle against a Communist force of at least 400 troops. Benavidez volunteered to be a one-man relief force and was dropped into the thick of the fighting without a weapon.
While rescuing the trapped patrol, Benavidez was shot seven times and suffered 28 shrapnel wounds. In addition, while he was carrying the mortally wounded Mousseau to a medical evacuation helicopter, a North Vietnamese soldier clubbed Benavidez in the head, smashed him in the face with a rifle butt and bayoneted him. But Benavidez still managed to kill his enemy.
Benavidez and Mousseau were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest award for bravery. But Special Forces veterans mounted a campaign to have Benavidez's award upgraded to the Medal of Honor, and the decoration was presented to him by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
Mousseau and Benavidez were members of the Studies and Observations Group, a commando unit that operated secretly in Cambodia and Laos, where U.S. troops were not officially allowed. The commendations say the battle took place in Vietnam, but it actually occurred in Cambodia, according to several books written about it.
Upon learning the truth four months ago about how and where her father died, Mueller said she initially felt betrayed by the Army. The scant piece of information included in the Army's report of the casualty was all she knew about Mousseau's death.
"I wondered if I had been lied to all these years. I came to the conclusion that I wasn't lied to. I just wasn't told the whole story," she said. "My mom said that my father was born to be a soldier. He died doing what he believed in."
Listed as her father's next-of-kin because of divorce, 3-year-old Mueller received letters of condolence from President Lyndon Johnson, then-Gov. Reagan and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which, in May 1968, adjourned a meeting in Mousseau's honor. Mousseau grew up in Cudahy.
Mueller said the letter from Reagan is her favorite. Written June 20, 1968, it said, "It is nearly impossible to find the words to say to the daughter of one who has been killed in war, because war is so senseless and the violent death of any of our men for any reason seems so meaningless."
Over the years, Mueller said, she tried to glean every bit of information about her father from relatives, including learning more about the day his family was notified of his death. At the time, Mueller was living in Compton with her maternal grandmother.
On Monday, Mueller eagerly awaited the trip to Texas and the chance to meet a group of men who 33 years ago knew her father better than she and her mother ever could. Mousseau was 24 and on his second combat tour when he died.
"My mom said that after his first tour you could tell from his eyes that he was a different person. I'm learning a lot about my father from his Army friends. This is happening at a time when I can really understand and appreciate what he did and who he was," she said.
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times