North Las Vegas man gets Purple Heart decades after Vietnam

Updated October 11, 2017 - 6:11 pm

Mike Sanzaro was on one of his last daytime operations with about eight Marines near Da Nang, Vietnam, when his squad’s point man stepped on a booby trap.

As Sanzaro aided the man with morphine, he noticed trip wires, pebbles and rocks nearby. They had stepped into a mine field, so he ordered the crew to freeze.

Sanzaro, then a 20-year-old lance corporal, threw a smoke grenade into a cornfield to signal what he thought was a medevac pilot. It turned out to be the command element of the operation, including Col. Bob Tilley. Sanzaro and another Marine were carrying the wounded man by his arms and legs, and they didn’t notice the command element get off the chopper and walk toward the danger zone.

“No one told them that we were in the minefield,” said Sanzaro, now 66 and a north valley resident. “If I would’ve seen them, I would’ve shot my rifle off, fired a couple rounds off to say, ‘Freeze; get on the chopper. Get the hell out.’”

The injured man’s feet flopped down, and Sanzaro reacted by squatting. Seconds later, his battalion executive officer stepped on a large booby trap about 10 feet from Sanzaro. The resulting explosion killed the executive officer and Capt. Douglas Ford and sent Sanzaro flying about 10 feet, he said.

Sanzaro was unconscious for a few minutes, and his helmet was split open.

“Had that guy’s feet not have fallen, I would’ve taken that hit in the stomach,” he said. “It would have just cut me in half. Am I not the luckiest guy in the world?”

Sanzaro, who had been on tour in Vietnam for 11 months and was the most senior member of his crew, got back up and led the squad out of the area. No one else was killed or injured. After completing its patrol about two hours later, the crew returned to the village it was assigned to protect. No one thanked Sanzaro.

“I was doing my job,” he said. “I had to. No one really knew what to do. It was my responsibility to get them back.”

It wasn’t until about 47 years later, decades after large-scale U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War ended, that he would be honored for the heroic act. He’d told his family some stories about the war, but he didn’t share the more gruesome ones, such as this, until he experienced a minor heart attack in 2010. He attributes it to being exposed to Agent Orange, and it jolted the sad memories and post-traumatic stress disorder, he said. He attended counseling for four years.

Sanzaro also suffered traumatic brain injury from his neck cracking in two places, as well as arthritis in his neck, which causes headaches, he said.

Sanzaro was presented with the Purple Heart medal, which is given to members of the U.S. armed forces who have been wounded or killed while serving, on Sept. 23 in San Diego during a ceremony in front of other members of his TBS (Marine Officers Basic School) class. It was the first time most of his classmates had heard about the incident. Sanzaro had been on more than 300 combat patrols during the war, in which he received a Navy Achievement Medal with Combat V, he said.

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” his wife of 42 years, Debby, said. She and their youngest daughter, Melissa Oldham, attended the ceremony.

Sanzaro didn’t realize he was eligible for the medal until doctors told him in 2012. He sought out two witnesses so he could prove his eligibility.

“He worked really hard to make this happen not because he’s vain, but because he deserved it,” Debby said.

“The ceremony was pretty cool,” Melissa added. “My dad got all choked up. He’s a badass.”

Tilley, whom Melissa tracked down via Facebook, said Purple Heart medals are rare and often take a long time to receive.

Sanzaro now has a Purple Heart decal on his truck, as well as a cap that signifies the honor. His medal is displayed in his office.

“It’s been such an honor because everyone in my officers class have honored me so well,” he said. “It’s recognition of something I earned but didn’t know I got it. It makes me super proud.”

After graduating from California State University, Long Beach with a bachelor’s degree in history, Sanzaro went back into the Marine Corps as an officer for five years.

Contact Kailyn Brown at kbrown@viewnews.com or 702-387-5233. Follow @kailynhype on Twitter.

ad-high_impact_4
Local
Lights FC coach Eric Wynalda lost his home in California wildfire
Eric Wynalda, coach of the Las Vegas Lights FC soccer team, talks about losing his home in the deadly California wildfires during an interview in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Nov. 17, 2018. (Ron Kantowski/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Women face issues from Essure birth control implants
DeVonna "Kat" Normand said she had complications from the Essure birth control implants. Normand uses her Sin City Heat show at 22.3 TakeOver Vegas Radio internet radio station in Las Vegas as a platform to raise awareness about Essure and connect with other women who have used the device. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Truancy and Clark County schools
Tony Stark, one of 23 attendance officers with the Clark County School District, have a tall order tracking down students who aren't in school.
North Las Vegas Water Meters
Randy DeVaul shows off the new water meters that the city is installing.
Project 150 Thanksgiving 2018
About 100 volunteers for Project 150 box Thanksgiving meals for high school students and their families in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Nov. 14.
Three Square’s Maurice Johnson Talks About Food Waste
Three Square’s director of operations Maurice Johnson talks about food waste.
Parade preparation nears completion
Downtown Summerlin prepares for its annual holiday parade.
Clark County Wetlands promotes 2019 Wetland Walker Program
This year the park will be celebrating the Northern Flicker. The program is designed to teach about that bird, and encourage people to visit the Wetlands and walk the same distance the bird migrates each year.
Poet’s Walk Henderson introduces storytelling
Residents enjoy a storytelling activity.
Downtown Summerlin hosts its annual Festival of Arts
People crowd to Downtown Summerlin for the 23rd annual Summerlin Festival of Arts in Las Vegas, Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018. (Caroline Brehman/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Clark County educators debate alternative grading systems
Spring Valley High School principal Tam Larnerd, Spring Valley High School IB coordinator Tony Gebbia and retired high school teacher Joyce O'Day discuss alternative grading systems. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
Grandparents on the fire that killed three family members
Charles and Doris Smith talk about the night an apartment fire took the lives of three of their family members. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
New York artist Bobby Jacobs donated a sculpture to the Las Vegas Healing Garden
Bobby Jacobs, an artist from upstate New York, has spent much of the past year creating a sculpture of two separate angel wings. He donated the sculpture to the Las Vegas Healing Garden. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Weather will cool slightly through the end of the week
The weather will cool slightly through the end of the week., but highs are still expected to be slightly above normal for this year. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Mayor announces new public-private partnership
Mayor Carolyn Goodman announced the creation of the Mayor’s Fund for Las Vegas LIFE, a public-private partnership that will allocate money to the city’s neediest.
Fremont9 opens downtown
Fremont9 apartment complex has opened in downtown Las Vegas. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
Fall fairytale gets cozy at Bellagio Conservatory
Bellagio Conservatory introduces its fall-themed garden titled "Falling Asleep." (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
What the house that Ted Binion died in looks like today
Casino heir Ted Binion died in this Las Vegas home in 1998. Current home owner Jane Popple spent over $600,000 to restore and modernize the home. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
Rescue Mission employees terminated
Don James, a former employee for the Las Vegas Rescue Mission, talks about the day his team was terminated. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Raiders Cupcakes at Freed's Bakery
Freed's Bakery will have Raiders-themed cupcakes available in store and for order during football season. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
51s fans say goodbye to Cashman Field
Las Vegas 51s fans said goodbye to Cashman Field in Las Vegas, Monday September, 3, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
51s owner Don Logan's last weekend at Cashman Field
Don Logan, owner of the Las Vegas 51s, gives a tour of Cashman Field before the team's final weekend using the field. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
TOP NEWS
News Headlines
Add Event
Home Front Page Footer Listing
Circular
You May Like

You May Like