NYU Alumni Magazine Spring 2010

alumni profile

The Final Battle

John B. Poindexter / STERN ’71, ’76

by Sally Lauckner / GSAS ’10

For retired U.S. Army Captain John Poindexter, March 26, 1970, marked his troop’s most crucial day in the Vietnam War. He was stationed in South Vietnam, accustomed to grueling living conditions, relentless heat and humidity, and the burden of constant vigilance. After receiving news that another unit of 100 American soldiers with dwindling ammunition was surrounded by Vietcong, Poindexter made the fateful decision to lead his troop, part of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, on a perilous rescue mission. Fighting through dense jungle, A Troop successfully drove back the enemy—though outnumbered three to one—and saved the majority of their fellow soldiers.

In 1970, Poindexter led a heroic, though quickly forgotten, rescue mission in South Vietnam.

A few months later, Poindexter returned to the United States, to NYU, where he clipped through an MBA in a year, and began a part-time PhD program in 1971. “I took the uniform off and I never put it back on again,” he remembers. “I probably became a civilian again on the flight back from Vietnam.” It was not until 2003 that Poindexter would suddenly find himself confronted by a flood of memories from that momentous rescue—and a startling realization that would send him off on a new mission, this time for recognition.

While reading Keith William Nolan’s Into Cambodia (Presidio), Poindexter came across a summary of a battle that, although unnamed, was unmistakably the one he and his troops had fought. The book mentioned that the medals Poindexter had requested for his men back in 1970 had been rejected due to a bureaucratic error. The vast majority of A Troop had gone without recognition for more than three decades. “I was mortified,” Poindexter says. “I failed in my duty to men whom I owed so much.” Adding to his embarrassment was the fact that he had been heavily decorated for his tour, receiving two Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and a Soldier’s Medal, among other honors.

Poindexter immediately resolved to procure military decorations for all the deserving men. As the sole owner of J.B. Poindexter & Co., a Texas-based manufacturing company and the largest producer of commercial trucks in the United States, Poindexter was able to foot the bill for all the research necessary for such a huge undertaking. He set about tracking down A Troop and compiling their accounts of the battle. Unfortunately, he discovered that a significant number of the men were either deceased or unable to clearly recollect their actions, while others lacked witnesses to substantiate their claims. “We recognized it would be impossible to honor everyone,” Poindexter says.

Ever determined, he instead decided to seek a prestigious Presidential Unit Citation that would recognize all of the men. The centerpiece of the application was a manuscript he had written three decades earlier, which contained a detailed description of the combat. (He’d originally submitted it to the military journal Armor, but it had been rejected due to length.) After updating it with photographs and recollections from some A Troop veterans, Poindexter self-published the book, titled The Anonymous Battle, in 2004. That same year, he submitted the required documentation for the citation, including the book. Poindexter estimates that he spent more than $100,000 in printing and travel expenses for A Troop.

After an agonizing four-year wait, the Secretary of the Army approved the troop’s citation in 2008. And, finally, Poindexter and 86 fellow soldiers were honored in an emotional ceremony at the White House Rose Garden last year. President Obama gave an “inspired speech,” Poindexter says, and several men told him it was the most important day of their lives. “I saw them all dressed up smartly and in formation,” he recalls. “I felt overwhelming pride.” He also felt that the day was bigger than the soldiers present. As he notes, “[These men were] representing an entire generation of Vietnam veterans who had not been honored for their service.”

photo Courtesy Capt. John Poindexter

In 2003, a startling realization sent Poindexter off on a new mission, this time for recognition.