Edward Aldrich and the men he fought with in the 720th Military Police Battalion during the Vietnam War finally reached a point where they thought their service would never be recognized.
|Retired Joliet, Ill., Local 176 member Edward Aldrich poses with the Bronze Star that he and other surviving members of 720th Military Police Battalion B Company received.
|Brother Aldrich on patrol with the Army’s 720th Military Police Battalion during the Vietnam War.
|The Bronze Star.
Instead, they received one of the highest honors of all.
The retired Joliet, Ill., Local 176 member was presented with the Bronze Star for Meritorious Service along with the other surviving members of the battalion's B Company during a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol on July 23.
"It was very emotional, and I was humbled," Aldrich said. "I was proud to be with my guys. It's closure."
The Bronze Star is awarded to U.S. servicemembers for heroic achievement on the battlefield. That seems an apt description for Aldrich and other members of B Company in 1969-70.
Nicknamed "The Bushwhackers," they were assigned to disrupt enemy attacks in a 22-square-mile tactical operations area near Long Binh Post, the largest military instillation in South Vietnam. U.S. command and others fighting in the region had identified the area as vulnerable to enemy attack.
This wasn't your normal combat unit. For reasons that still aren't clear to Aldrich and others, they are the only military police unit in American history to be specifically assigned to combat infantry duty.
"Why did this happen?" Aldrich asked. "We never exactly knew."
This Wasn't Directing Traffic
Knowing he was likely to be drafted after graduating from high school in 1967, Aldrich enlisted and asked to be assigned to a military police unit because he was interested in a career in law enforcement.
He went through basic training and attended IAT-MP school before being assigned to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.
"I thought I would be directing traffic in downtown Saigon," Aldrich said, referring to the then-South Vietnamese capital now called Ho Chi Minh City.
Instead of directing traffic, the 20-year-old Aldrich was patrolling small villages and making his way through the hills and swamps, fighting off the enemy. One particularly harrowing experience came along the Trae Bong River when the battalion intercepted Viet Cong boats. He could smell and feel the hot casings fired by two Huey helicopters just over his head while his squad leader called in for more support.
"Being that I was married, I wanted to survive and come back to my wife," he said. "That was my main concern. Hurry up and get it over with.
"When I first got over there, I was thinking about the John Wayne mentality of war," he added. "My dad and uncles all served. That's what I thought it was like. … That did not last very long."
Following his yearlong tour, Aldrich returned home and was assigned to Fort Rucker (now Fort Novosel) in Alabama, where his oldest son, Barry, was born. He returned to his hometown of Morris, Ill., after being discharged.
His plans for a career in law enforcement didn't work out. Aldrich applied to join the Illinois Highway Patrol and did well on the test, he said. Unfortunately, the patrol only accepted 40 cadets out of about 780 applicants that year. He interviewed for a police officer's position in nearby Coal City, Ill., but was the runner-up.
He landed a spot in Local 176's apprenticeship in 1975. His military service helped him get it, he said.
His career included a long stint on Local 176's executive board before retiring 14 years ago.
"The best thing I ever did was to get involved in the apprenticeship," he said.
A Special Trip to Washington
The unique nature of their unit might have contributed to Aldrich's company not being recognized earlier. He and others reached out to the Army and other public officials over the years requesting the Combat Infantryman Badge, which is given to soldiers who fought in combat. They seemed to meet the definition. They were a boots-on-the-ground infantry unit that also had its own patrol boats, the Boston Whalers.
They never got it because they were considered a military police unit, Aldrich said, and they gave up hope of any recognition.
"That ate at me all these years," he said. "It was frustrating."
So, consider him pleasantly stunned when he was told earlier this year that the surviving members would receive the Bronze Star in a Washington ceremony this summer.
"When I first heard about it, I thought they were going to make the presentation in something like a Holiday Inn or a banquet hall," Aldrich said.
Instead, with the help of Ohio Rep. Robert Latta — whose office worked to get the men their overdue honor — Aldrich joined 54 other members of the 720th MP Battalion for a ceremony in the Capitol itself.
Also on hand was his wife, Margie, along with Barry and Ryan, their two sons, who are now Local 176 business representatives.
"You could see what this meant to everyone," Barry said. "Guys were breaking down all throughout the ceremony."
Barry Aldrich said a particularly poignant moment came when the honorees and their families returned to their northern Virginia hotel afterward for a celebration.
Many of them had asked for years — even decades — for some kind of recognition. Now that it had been achieved, and with an average age of 76 among the surviving members, they realized it might be the last time they see each other.
"The Bronze Star kind of felt like the finish line for them," Barry Aldrich said. "There was a feeling they were not going to be able to top that weekend. There wasn't a dry eye in the place, I can tell you that."
Edward Aldrich could not stop thinking about Margie, his wife of 54 years.
"She is my rock," he said. "My dad was married three times while I was growing up. I brought in a lot of bad, dark stuff. She is the one that made me want to excel."
The IBEW Is a 'Great Thing'
Now 74, Aldrich may be retired, but he still takes an active interest in the IBEW and Local 176. He and his two sons each have homes near a 68-acre property that has been in the family for three generations. Barry said it's not uncommon to see his father with a chainsaw clearing tree damage following a storm.
The elder Aldrich treasures the comfortable lifestyle that IBEW membership afforded him, but he's concerned that younger members don't understand the sacrifices made for those benefits. He encourages them to continue to fight for them.
"I don't know why people don't get it," he said. "This is a great thing. The guys that came before us did their homework."
Before leaving Washington, Aldrich and his family visited the International Office, where he spent time with International President Kenneth W. Cooper, International Secretary-Treasurer Paul Noble and Sixth District International Vice President Michael Clemmons.
Clemmons is a former Local 176 business manager and has known the Aldrich family for nearly 30 years.
"Brother Aldrich is a terrific example to all our members when it comes to service to country," Cooper said. "I congratulate him on this tremendous honor, and I'm thankful he and his family got to receive it inside the Capitol. It serves as a reminder of the costs paid by all our military families in the United States and Canada. We'll continue to do everything we can to ensure they have a home in the IBEW."