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Bush Posthumously Honors Vietnam War Hero - 2002-07-09

Years after his death at the hands of his Vietcong captors, an American soldier has been honored at the White House. Rocky Versace was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President George W. Bush.

Captain Versace died in 1965. Thirty-five years later, his family accepted the nation's highest award for military valor on his behalf.

White-haired former classmates and colleagues in arms sat side by side with members of the extended Versace family at the Medal of Honor ceremony.

President Bush told them Captain Versace was a man of courage under the most cruel conditions. "His story echoes across the years," the president said, "reminding us of liberty's high price and of the noble passion that caused one good man to pay that price in full."

Historians say Rocky Versace is the first Army soldier to receive the award for his actions while a prisoner of war. He was captured by the Vietcong in 1963, about a week before his tour of duty was to come to an end. He was kept, like other prisoners, in a small bamboo cage, and singled out for the harshest treatment.

"Rocky's captors clearly had no idea who they were dealing with," said Mr. Bush. "Four times he tried to escape, the first time crawling on his stomach because his leg injuries prevented him from walking. He insisted on giving no more information than required by the Geneva Convention and cited the treaty chapter and verse over and over again."

The president said eventually Captain Versace was separated from the other prisoners. "Rocky knew precisely what he was doing," Bush continued. "By focusing his captors' anger on him, he made life immeasurably more tolerable for his fellow prisoners who looked to him as a role model of principled resistance."

He was a prisoner of war for two years. President Bush said his struggle ended with his execution. "In his too-short life," Mr. Bush said, "he traveled to a distant land to bring the hope of freedom to people he never met. In his defiance and later his death he set an example of extraordinary dedication that changed the lives of his fellow soldiers who saw it first hand."

At first it seemed Rocky Versace would never get his Medal of Honor, in large part because the Army appeared reluctant to recognize the valor of a man taken prisoner. But his military colleagues and family mounted an all-out campaign to keep his memory alive. They finally won over the Pentagon last year.