FAIRBANKS - Drew Dix knows a thing or two about honor, integrity and sacrifice.
He was only 17 years old when he joined the Army.
Little did he know, but he would become the first enlisted soldier in Special Forces to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions during combat in Vietnam, work in Alaska and then co-found the Center for American Values.
He spoke to a large group of Fairbanksans on Friday, thanks to the Fairbanks Hospital Foundation.
His visit coincided with the anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.
“I am totally surprised at the number of people I’ve run into tonight,” he told the audience. “I know about three-quarters of you.”
Dix joined the Army because he wanted to be like his father, who served in the military during World War II.
“I admired what he did, I wanted to be like him, and I wanted him to be proud of what I did,” said Dix.
He was impatient to discover he had to wait to join Special Forces until he “reached the ripe old age of 21,” he said.
But once that day arrived, he worked with Special Forces and also served as a company commander.
“Of all the assignments I’ve ever had, and some really risky jobs, the most rewarding job I ever had was leading our draftees into combat,” he said.
Soldiers came and went on a regular basis. Decades later, he went to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.
He wanted to look at names on the wall and that’s when he discovered he didn’t know most of their names.
Everyone went by a nickname in those days.
“That bothered me a little bit,” he said. “The average age of my rifle company was 19. I was the ripe old age of 27.”
In Vietnam, he learned to be ready for anything.
He was recruited to lead a team of indigenous soldiers and mercenaries — Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian — to capture the enemy and collect information.
“It took every bit of training I had,” he said.
“I wish I’d paid a little more attention in some of those classes. We got heavily involved in eliminating enemy infrastructure.”
His team captured 40 to 60 enemy targets every month.
Generally, this was behind enemy lines, with no backup and no radio.
His book, “The Rescue of River City,” describes the harrowing 56-hour time period when he led a small contingent of troops against two Viet Cong battalions.
Despite being outnumbered 30 to one, he and his troops prevailed.
That led to him receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor from then-president Lyndon B. Johnson.
Turns out he is the fourth Medal of Honor recipient from Pueblo, Colorado.
When President Dwight D. Eisenhower honored the third recipient from Pueblo, he was quoted as saying, “What is it in the water in Pueblo? You all turn out to be heroes.”
“It’s not the water,” Dix told the Fairbanks audience. “It’s the people.”
He described the close bonds formed between soldiers during combat.
“You can imagine how it has to be, to go into some of those places,” he said.
“There are relationships like this around the world, that are very similar,” he said.
“We just don’t think about it here, especially in Alaska.”
“Young soldiers are working right now to protect us,” Dix added.
“They’re young souls. It’s in their blood. They’re doing our work for us and looking out for us all the time,” he said.
When he retired from the military, he came to Alaska.
He worked at the borough, at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and even started his own flight service from Manley Hot Springs, and also worked for state government.
But he kept getting called back to duty in his off time.
That included parachuting into the deep arctic to set up acoustical equipment to monitor Soviet submarines in the early 1980s.
As the years passed, he has been asked regularly to share his experiences with younger generations. To help do that, he co-founded the educational, nonprofit Center for American Values.
“One of the things we’re very disturbed with is the violence in our communities,” he said.
“War is one thing. But not on our streets. Not in our schools.”
“Violence is an epidemic, just like any other sickness we have,” he said.
The Center for American Values honors the extreme sacrifices made to help sustain American values, and seeks to ensure those actions are preserved forever.
It does this through education outreach, leadership seminars and conferences and other special events and ongoing programs.
A new dramatic film called “Draw The Line,” based on the turbulent history of Tombstone, Arizona, will soon be available to school classes.
Dix offered this advice to young people who join the military.
“You are in an honored profession,” Dix said.
“You have a responsibility to this nation’s men and women. You’ve taken an oath to protect us.”
A soldier leading other soldiers has an even stronger oath, to protect those under his command.
Don’t second guess yourself, he said.
“On the battlefield, if you hesitate, someone dies,” he said. “In peacetime, military or business, we need to do what’s right.
“Sometimes you won’t know because it’s not so obvious, but some day, down the line, you will know you did the right thing.”
He hasn’t had the time or the inclination to return to Vietnam.
“It’s not high on my list,” he said. “My mission was to capture people. They were probably running the country when we released them.”
What is the Congressional Medal of Honor?
The Congressional Medal of Honor is the highest award that can be given to a member of the armed forces. Recipients must distinguish themselves at the risk of their own lives, above and beyond the call of duty, in action against enemies of the United States.
It is often presented posthumously.
Created in 1861, during the Civil War, 3,471 people have received this honor — 2,000 in the Civil War, 400 in the Indian wars, fewer than 1,000 since World War I.
Contact community editor and columnist Kris Capps at email@example.com and at 459-7546. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMKris.