Longtime Hemet resident Don “Donnie” Simpson was awarded the Silver Star, the third highest U.S. military honor, in a special ceremony July 1 at Hemet American Legion Post 53.
“I had to do what I had to do,” Simpson, a Vietnam War veteran and former army rifleman and radiotelephone operator, said of the actions he took that would later earn him his Silver Star.
On the day in question – February 12, 1967 – his Army reconnaissance team was dropped off from a helicopter in the Vietnamese jungle in an area called Bonsong, and came under heavy fire. Simpson, seeing members his squad being hit, took cover behind a hedge and opened fire on the “considerable enemy.”
Simpson was separated from his squad, and the situation was becoming more critical by the second. Bullets whizzed overhead and nipped at his uniform. He was fired at every time he moved. But despite his extremely prone position, Simpson was able to radio for help and successfully direct an airstrike crew to the enemy.
Though four men were killed and eight wounded out of the 18 in Simpson’s squad, the survivors were able to move to safety after the airstrikes.
Congressman Raul Ruiz, D-Coachella, presented Simpson with his Silver Star during the ceremony.
Ruiz called Simpson “a local hometown American hero.”
“He was raised right here in Hemet,” Ruiz said. “He graduated from Hemet High School.”
Simpson was drafted into the Army in 1966 at the age of 19, and was soon ordered to Vietnam, where he served in many combat missions until leaving with an honorable discharge in 1968 as a sergeant.
“His bravery was at great personal risk to himself and allowed his comrades to complete an airstrike on the enemy,” Ruiz said of Simpson. “His initiative and courage was absolutely critical in ensuring the engagement was a success and his fellow soldiers were safe”
Simpson has already received his Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Army Commendation Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal and National Defense Medal. But at the time of his discharge, he did not have or expect the Silver Star or other honors he received Saturday at his Hemet American Legion Hall – 49 years later.
“I never thought about this for 45 years,” Simpson said before accepting the honors. “I didn’t feel like anything. I did what I had to do and it was a lot to help myself survive too.”
He recalled what he felt when he first got to Vietnam.
“You know, No. 1, you are scared,” he said. “When you first get there, you don’t know what’s going on. You have no idea.”
He credited his platoon sergeants, Korean War veterans, for the training that brought him through many missions where he fought with gallantry and unselfishness.
Simpson, who’s been married to his wife Susie for 47 years and employed with Eastern Municipal Water District for nearly as many, remained active with the American Legion Post 53 in Hemet after his discharge, having connected with others from the 5th Calvary, 1st Calvary Division who served in Vietnam.
One of Simpson’s fellow legionnaires, having heard the story, believed Simpson deserved more recognition for his service and reached out to Patrick Keplinger, a Veterans case worker. Keplinger then worked with Ruiz to get Simpson his Silver Star. Ruiz recommended Simpson for the award.
Keplinger, who has worked to get many other veterans recognized for their long-ago actions, sad Simpson and his role in fighting the nation’s enemies met the criteria for actions deserving of the Silver Star.
“The Silver Star is for personal actions against an enemy,” Keplinger said. “Don did those personal actions to save every one of those guys.”
Actions deserving of a Sliver Star must take place while engaged against an opposing force, and must be beyond those above all other combat decorations, except the Medal of Honor or a Service Cross.
“There are not many Silver Stars awarded,” said Keplinger.
Simpson, standing with his wife, wiped tears from his eyes while having the star pinned to his coat by Ruiz.
He also received certificates of appreciation from state legislators, as well as county and city elected officials.
Among the loudest cheers heard from the crowd gathered for ceremony were members of his large extended family present—including five children, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
“Way to go Dad!” one shouted.
Simpson continues to serve veterans in the community. He is a member of the Post 53 Honor Guard and has participated in more than 500 military services at the Riverside National Cemetery.
Simpson said he has great respect for the servicemen now serving across the world.
“I wish them the best. I am so proud they are serving,” he said. “You know they are all volunteers, they give willingly. They joined to do what they do.”
Simpson learned after the ceremony that his would be the “Grand Marshall” at the July 4 Independence Day Parade in San Jacinto.
The Valley News thanks you for your service, Don “Donnie” Simpson.