Specialist/SFC Lawrence Joel (February 22, 1928–February 4, 1984) was an American military veteran. He served in the U.S. Army in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War. While serving in Viet Nam, as a medic assigned to 1st Battalion of the 503rd Infantry in the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Joel received the Silver Star and the Medal of Honor for his heroism in a battle with the Viet Cong that occurred on November 8, 1965. He was the first living black American to receive this medal since the Spanish-American War in 1898.
November 8, 1965, was not supposed to be a special day in the life of Lawrence Joel, US Army Specialist Five, of Winston-Salem.
In the jungle of South Vietnam, a 20-minute helicopter ride for Bien Hoa, Joel's battalion of paratroopers made ready for an all-day patrol to search for Viet Cong Soldiers.
Joel called the action "fairly routine...just like back at Ft. Bragg --going to play war games." But that day was anything but a game, and Joel's response anything but routine. His unit was ambushed by a Viet Cong battalion that outnumbered the American paratroopers six to one.
A medical aidman -- "medic" to the troops -- Joel received two wounds from Viet Cong machine gun fire but never abandoned his duty to the wounded. After being wounded the first time, Joel bandaged himself and gave himself a shot of morphine, then went back to working on the wounded paratroopers of his unit. He attended to 13 wounded troops, saving the life of one soldier who had suffered a serious chest wound, before his supplies were exhausted. He got more supplies and, hobbling along on a makeshift crutch, under heavy fire, began to attend to wounded troops from another company before the fighting slacked off, 12 hours after it began. Throughout the fighting, he ignored warnings to stay out of the line of fire and continued attending to the wounded men.
His commanding officer said, "Joel was definiately not worried about getting wounded. Usually, when you hear metal flying, the normal inclination is to get as low as you can or to get something between you and the flying metal. But not Joel."
Joel, who spent three months in hospitals in Saigon and Tokyo recovering from wounds to his right thigh and calf, received the Silver Star. On March 9, 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson, in a White House ceremony, presented the Congressional Medal of Honor to Joel. Later Joel was honored by a huge parade in Winston-Salem. The first medical aidman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for service in Vietnam, Joel was the first enlisted man to receive the award from President Johnson, the first living black man to receive the award, and the first soldier from Winston-Salem so honored.
In his presentation speech, President Johnson spoke of Joel's "very special kind of courage -- the unarmed heroism of compassion and service to others." "I'm glad to be alive," Joel said before going to Washington to receive his medal. "I just wish I could have done more. I never say that I deserved the medal. That's just not for me to say. It was just my job."
Joel, who died of complications from diabetes in 1984, was born in Winston-Salem in 1928. He was educated in Winston-Salem elementary and junior high schools and attended Atkins High School. He served for one year in the Merchant Marines and, in 1946, enlisted in the U.S. Army at the age of 18. He retired from military service in 1973. In February 1986, the Winston-Salem Board of Alderman voted to name the city's new arena "Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum" in honor of Joel and all other Forsyth County veterans who died in service to their country.
Joel is buried in Section 46 of Arlington National Cemetery adjacent to the Memorial Amphitheater.
On March 9, 1967 on the White House lawn, President Lyndon Johnson presented Joel with the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service in the Vietnam War. His citation reads as follows:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty. Sp6c. Joel demonstrated indomitable courage, determination, and professional skill when a numerically superior and well-concealed Viet Cong element launched a vicious attack which wounded or killed nearly every man in the lead squad of the company. After treating the men wounded by the initial burst of gunfire, he bravely moved forward to assist others who were wounded while proceeding to their objective. While moving from man to man, he was struck in the right leg by machine gun fire. Although painfully wounded his desire to aid his fellow soldiers transcended all personal feeling. He bandaged his own wound and self-administered morphine to deaden the pain enabling him to continue his dangerous undertaking. Through this period of time, he constantly shouted words of encouragement to all around him. Then, completely ignoring the warnings of others, and his pain, he continued his search for wounded, exposing himself to hostile fire; and, as bullets dug up the dirt around him, he held plasma bottles high while kneeling completely engrossed in his life saving mission. Then, after being struck a second time and with a bullet lodged in his thigh, he dragged himself over the battlefield and succeeded in treating 13 more men before his medical supplies ran out. Displaying resourcefulness, he saved the life of one man by placing a plastic bag over a severe chest wound to congeal the blood. As 1 of the platoons pursued the Viet Cong, an insurgent force in concealed positions opened fire on the platoon and wounded many more soldiers. With a new stock of medical supplies, Sp6c. Joel again shouted words of encouragement as he crawled through an intense hail of gunfire to the wounded men. After the 24 hour battle subsided and the Viet Cong dead numbered 410, snipers continued to harass the company. Throughout the long battle, Sp6c. Joel never lost sight of his mission as a medical aidman and continued to comfort and treat the wounded until his own evacuation was ordered. His meticulous attention to duty saved a large number of lives and his unselfish, daring example under most adverse conditions was an inspiration to all. Sp6c. Joel's profound concern for his fellow soldiers, at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in the highest traditions of the U.S. Army and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country.
Arlington National Cemetery Tribute to Lawrence Joel
Official Site of the Medal of Honor
Listen to Audio File - PRESENTATION CEREMONY AT THE WHITE HOUSE, MARCH 9, 1967. President Johnson's Remarks Upon Awarding the Congressional Medal of Honor to Specialist 6 Lawrence Joel. Citation for Lawrence Joel read by Secretary of the Army Stanley R. Resor.
The U.S. Army clinic at Ft McPherson, GA, is named after SP6 Joel.