TAMPA, Fla. - On the ink-black night of June 13, 1968, the highlands around Dak Pek in western Vietnam erupted in artillery and rocket fire.
The U.S. Army Special Forces camp, just a few miles from the Laotian border, had been under sporadic siege for days.
Situated near the infamous Ho Chi Minh trail and supporting an airstrip, this spot was a prime target by the enemy troops in the area.
It was a night of close combat with causalities on both sides, but it was also the night a young American Soldier from Tallahassee named Matthew Carter would earn a Silver Star -- an award that would take more than 44 years for him to receive.
On Oct. 27,the Florida National Guard presented the long-lost medal, as well as a Purple Heart, to the family of Sgt. Matthew Carter during a reunion of B Company, 1/22nd Regiment, 4th Infantry Division. Carter, who passed away in 1996, never knew he had earned the prestigious medal for his gallantry in 1968.
Carter's platoon leader John McHenry, remembered the mission that took his unit to the camp at Dak Pek and would net Silver Stars for two of his men in Bravo Company.
He said his unit was ordered to the besieged Special Forces camp a few days before the attack, and instructed to patrol around a nearby hilltop. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers who had been peppering the camp with direct and indirect fire could "see everything we did," McHenry explained.
In the early morning hours on the day of the attack another member of Bravo Company -- Sgt. Frank Spink -- warned 1st Lt. McHenry that enemy soldiers were approaching their position. "The first part of the attack was a star cluster over the TOC -- tactical operations center -- right where our (commanding officer) was," McHenry said.
"I'll never forget -- it was like a white star cluster. I thought they were firecrackers at first and thought 'Who the hell would do that?'"
The white stars tinkling down over the camp were marking the spot for the enemy to concentrate its fire and attack. At that point Bravo Company started taking direct rocket fire from two companies of NVA Regulars.
During the barrage, which included rocket and grenade fire, Spink lost his right arm and attempted to shoot at the enemy with his left hand until he lost consciousness.
Carter, who was also in Spink's squad, was wounded by an enemy rocket while he was laying down a suppressive barrage of fire with an M-60 machine gun.
Despite his wounds, Carter refused to leave his position and continued to shoot until an enemy grenade struck his position; he was wounded again, and now had a jammed machine gun.
Disregarding the pain, Carter repaired his weapon and continued to help repel the attack until he passed out from the wounds.
With the help of Air Force aircraft circling overhead, the enemy was eventually driven back and the wounded were evacuated.
"It was a heavy attack," McHenry said, recollecting the violent night that brought casualties on both sides.
More than 40 years later, McHenry began searching through the National Archives and found that Spink and Carter had been awarded Silver Stars, but through an apparent error in paperwork their medals had never reached them.
With McHenry's assistance, Spink finally received his Silver Star during a ceremony in Indianapolis in August.
Although Carter died in 1996, McHenry and alumni from B Company, 1/22nd Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, managed to track down Carter's family and invited them to the unit's annual reunion in Tampa.
The Florida National Guard's Assistant Adjutant General for Army, Maj. Gen. James Tyre, presented the framed awards to Carter's widow Lorine and her family while about 50 former members of the unit stood at attention.
"The actions of Sgt. Carter on June 13, 1968, define gallantry in action," Tyre told the gathered Vietnam veterans. "They embodied the actions of the true selfless-leader and Soldier that he was."
Tyre said that an estimated 150,000 Silver Stars have been awarded since World War I, but when compared with the fact that about 30 million service men and women have served "our great nation during that same time period, the Silver Star is truly an extraordinary award. It is bestowed on less than one half of one percent of the military who have served our nation."
Fighting back tears, Lorine Carter accepted the awards. She said her husband would "be smiling in his grave to know that finally somebody is recognizing (him). "He would be very proud to know that although it has taken all this time it is finally coming," she said.