Tuesday morning, Bob French arrived at his brother Larry’s house on Davis Islands to find Tampa police cars there.
“I saw all these police around,” French said. “I did not know what the cops were there for.”
It turns out they were there for him.
A short while later, French would be wearing a Bronze Star, which he first was nominated for nearly 46 years ago after a three-day battle that killed 47 U.S. troops and wounded many more. Like him.
The police were at his brother’s house to escort him to MacDill Air Force Base, where he was the guest of honor at a ceremony presided over by the Centcom chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Karl Horst.
French was surprised and humble.
“I’m not the real hero,” he said, sitting in a chair in the Centcom visitors center before the ceremony. “The real heroes are the ones who never came back.”
More than 80 people — family, friends, colleagues — filled the small media room to watch Horst present French the medal, issued to troops in combat for “meritorious service.”
French, a radio telephone operator for Charlie Company of the 47th Infantry Regiment of the 9th Infantry Division, was wounded on June 19, 1967.
“Specialist French consistently displayed exceptional performance with rapid assessment and solutions against determined hostile fighters,” the medal citation states. “His diligence and loyalty greatly enhanced the effectiveness of his platoon despite many adversities and an aggressive enemy.”
Horst, before presenting the medal, read a passage from Shakespeare’s “Henry V.”
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” Horst read. “For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”
Beyond that, Horst said he has a greater kinship with French.
Just months after the Vietnam War ended, Horst enlisted in the Army.
“He and I have more in common than differences,” said Horst, showing emblems of units both men served in, including the crest of the 9th Infantry Division and an insignia of the 47th Infantry Regiment.
After the battle, near the village of Ap Bac in the Mekong Delta, French’s platoon leader, 1st Lt. Jack Benedick, nominated French and four others for the Bronze Star. But the paperwork got lost.
About a decade ago, after a reunion in which he learned that none of the men got the Bronze Star, Benedick tried again.
Benedick, with the help of Rep. Gus Bilirakis, eventually was able to get the men the medals, but, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, he wasn’t able to attend the ceremony. He sent a long a message.
“Those who serve in combat together develop a special bond,” his message states. “Bob is a true American.”
In addition to the Bronze Star, French was presented a Centcom coin from Horst and one from Command Sgt. Maj. Frank Grippe, a flag flown over Centcom headquarters with a certificate signed by Grippe, a plaque in remembrance of the “Boys of ’67,” a statue of a soldier given by Kaye French, a shadow box, a Purple Heart coin and a Congressional Military Recognition Coin presented by Bilirakis’ office.
Kaye French took the stage and pinned the Bronze Star on the gray blazer worn by her husband, a man she has known since she was 12.
His eyes welled up with tears.
She started crying again, then nuzzled her head onto her husband’s shoulder.
Later, as the crowd dispersed and many headed for a celebration at the French home, she said, “This is overwhelming,”