In August 1969, a lanky and bushy-haired Army Sgt. Leon Strigotte stooped to inspect makeshift booby traps laid by Viet Cong near Bong Son, a village near the coast in south-central Vietnam.
An Army photographer captured the moment in black-and-white, the young soldier gazing intently at explosives not unlike the land mine that wounded him and killed two others following a day of intense fighting near the city of Hue less than 18 months before.
On Friday, Strigotte – still a head taller than most, but now a semiretired police officer and international peacekeeper teaching criminal justice courses at Lewis and Clark High School – received Army commendations 40 years overdue for his second Vietnam tour in a ceremony at the Post Falls Army National Guard Armory.
“I did not expect anything like this,” Strigotte said, thanking the Idaho Army National Guard for the ceremony. “They really, truly, went above and beyond.”
According to his fellow veterans, the honors couldn’t come soon enough.
“Sgt. Leon Strigotte has paid his dues to his country and should be recognized for it,” wrote Maj. Szabolcs M. de Gyurky, who commanded Strigotte’s company during the height of the Tet Offensive, including the harrowing days facing ambushes near Bong Son.
Strigotte, a California native who moved to Coeur d’Alene with his wife, Linda, 20 years ago, said the Bronze Star, Air Medal and Army Commendation Medal he received, in addition to other Vietnam service medals, bring closure for the years that he served and should inspire returning veterans struggling with the aftermath of war.
“I hope that they see that there is hope, even though there’s a lot of long-term struggling,” Striggote said.
Coming from a military family (Strigotte’s father was stationed at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941), Strigotte enlisted right after high school and planned to be a career soldier. The wounds sustained in the land mine incident and, later, sniper gunfire to the neck in December 1969 ended that path. After the war and his discharge, he met Linda. They have been married for more than 40 years.
“I’m very proud of him, even without the medals,” Linda Strigotte said Friday. “After 42 years, he’s still my heartthrob.”
Leon Strigotte got a college degree and ended up serving with United Nations peacekeepers in Kosovo and elsewhere in the 1990s, then returned as a Justice Department official in the late 2000s.
“I loved it because I’m also a geopolitical-science lover,” Strigotte said. “That was one of the things I studied in college.”
The ceremony was made possible by archivists returning to the records of service authored in the late 1960s. The original orders for Strigotte’s medals were lost, possibly because the ship carrying the records was sunk in a Vietnam harbor in 1971.
“For whatever reason, whatever happened, they’ve never made it clear, is that somehow the paperwork got set aside 44 years ago,” Strigotte said. “And now they caught up to it.”
After having his medals pinned to a suit jacket by Brig. Gen. John Goodale, commander of the Idaho Army National Guard, Strigotte took a moment to remember a fellow soldier lost and the many members of the Vietnam generation still unsung.
“Sgt. Charles Berry, he is on the Wall, because he did not make it home,” Strigotte said, referring to a squad mate who died in the fighting. “I also stand here for them, and I hope that others that may have been overlooked will also gain from this that they might be awarded their medals.”