DUBLIN -- Richard Copas has health issues and isn’t sure how much longer he may have in this world, but after last week he says he will die happy.
Copas traveled to the White House to see his brother, Ardie Copas, posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Ardie was killed in Cambodia in 1970 as he fought off enemy forces, despite being seriously injured, to allow injured soldiers to be evacuated.
“I’m the most happiest man on the face of the Earth,” Copas said. “Winning the lottery couldn’t be better than this right here. I still can’t get a good night’s sleep, I’m just so pumped up about it.”
On March 18, President Barack Obama awarded the nation’s highest medal to 24 people, all but three posthumously. The ceremony was the result of a review of medals that may have been denied because of discrimination.
Copas, now 60, was 16 when his brother was killed. Afterward, his mother took the money she got from the government and left. He became estranged from the rest of his family as a result, and for many years knew nothing about how his brother died.
Copas is from Florida, but he moved to Dublin 40 years ago because that’s where his wife was from.
It wasn’t until a chance meeting five years ago that he found out his brother was a war hero. Copas was doing odd jobs, and someone told him about a man who might need some pressure washing services.
That man was Jim Ross, a Vietnam veteran with a Purple Heart for injuries he suffered in a mortar attack. When Copas pulled up to Ross’ home, he saw the Purple Heart license plate on his car and asked him about it.
That led to Ross learning Copas had a brother killed in Vietnam. The only thing Copas knew, however, was that his brother belonged to some unit called the 5th. Copas didn’t even know what branch his brother served in.
But despite the limited information, something about it touched Ross, and he thought he would try to find out more and maybe get Copas “a little memento” of his brother.
“I could just tell how much he loved his brother,” Ross said.
Ross served two years before Ardie, and as it turns out, both served in the 25th Infantry Division, which had a unit called the 5th Mechanized Infantry. It was a long shot, but on a hunch Ross decided to check to see if that was Ardie’s unit.
He found a website for the unit and a phone number in Chicago. He called and told the person who answered he was trying to find out about an Ardie Copas who may have served in the unit.
He was stunned at what he was told.
“He said, ‘He’s pretty well known in our unit,’ ” Ross recalled.
As it turned out, Ardie Copas had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest medal for a soldier. The unit’s website had a picture of him.
From that day forward, Ross became obsessed with learning more. It wasn’t long before he came to the conclusion that Copas deserved the nation’s highest medal and started lobbying for it.
With much help from his wife, Amanda, he spent countless hours researching the case, including interviewing eyewitnesses.
One of those was John Vinzant, who now lives in Las Vegas.
‘His arm was just dangling’
In a telephone interview Friday, Vinzant described what happened at about 5 a.m. on the morning of May 12, 1970.
Their unit had gone into Cambodia to take out an ammunition dump supplying enemy troops in Vietnam. They had camped for the night when, as Vinzant put it, “all hell broke loose.”
A large group of enemy troops attacked them, including with rocket propelled grenades.
A soldier manning a 50-caliber machine gun on an armored personnel carrier was killed, and Copas immediately jumped in his place. Three times Copas was knocked off by RPG fire, Vinzant said, and three times he got back up. By the third time, Vinzant could see that he was seriously injured.
“His arm was just dangling,” he said.
Copas kept firing until he was killed, and his actions were credited with saving many lives. Vinzant said there were about 120 troops in their unit, and five were killed.
Right from the start, Vinzant said he and his fellow troops believed Copas deserved the Medal of Honor.
Last week, he watched on TV as Obama awarded the medal to Ardie Copas’ daughter, Shyrell Jean Copas, who was born while he was in Vietnam.
“I cried through the whole thing,” Vinzant said. “I think it was overdue. It brings tremendous honor to not only himself but the guys who fought alongside him.”
Named for a war hero
It wouldn’t be immediately recognized, but Ardie Copas was named after a Medal of Honor winner, Audie Murphy.
Murphy was awarded the medal for a similar act in World War II, in which he also fired from a mounted weapon while injured.
Murphy became a national hero, and when Ardie was born, Richard Copas’ oldest sister wanted to name him after Murphy.
Only she had the first name spelling wrong, so he became Ardie.
To Ross, Copas’ actions were a lot like what Murphy did.
“To me, Ardie Copas did more than Audie Murphy,” he said. “I hate to say that because Audie Murphy is my hero, but Ardie Copas did more.”
As much as Richard Copas wanted to see his brother get the medal, it didn’t have to happen for him to know what kind of a man he was.
“Let me tell you something, all of my life, he was always my hero,” Copas said, fighting back tears. “He was something special to me. He was always there to protect me when I was growing. I can still feel him around me.”
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.