WASHINGTON — Pfc. Paul Evans was rocking and rolling on his M-16 on a long-ago afternoon in Vietnam, spraying fire toward an unseen enemy hidden deep within the jungle. He was a terrified 18-year-old who knew, as other men fell around him, that he was about to die.
Then out of nowhere, American tanks thundered out of the jungle, Evans later recalled. Alpha Troop had arrived.
The men of Alpha Troop, 1st Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry, rushed in to rescue Evans and the rest of his infantry company, which had been pinned down for most of the day after wandering into a cluster of North Vietnamese bunkers.
For two hours, Alpha's tanks suppressed fire enough to weaken the enemy. Then, as night fell and the Americans feared being surrounded in the dark, everyone fled through the blackening foliage.
Many of the soldiers tucked away their memories for years, only now describing the day's horror.
Kenny Euge of Belleville, Ill., drove one of the tanks that barreled through the jungle to Charlie Company's aid, closest to the enemy. He recalled a rocket-propelled grenade flying just over his head, like a flaming basketball.
"It was all scary. It was all scary," Euge recalled this week, his voice breaking as he spoke. "Even the drive back was scary. It didn't get un-scary until you got back."
However, the Army overlooked the clash that became known as the Anonymous Battle. When one man ended his tour and was asked about any major battles he'd been in, the soldier who was processing the paperwork shook his head. There had been no battles that day.
The veterans — and now everyone else — know differently.
Tuesday morning, President Barack Obama gave about 100 veterans of Alpha Troop the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest award for valor that a military unit can earn.
Old soldiers in dark suits or dress uniforms — some wearing old medals pinned to their chests, some lean and ramrod straight, others leaning on canes — listened in the White House Rose Garden as birds chirped under a bright sky and the commander in chief praised their valor.
"Some may wonder: After all these years, why honor this heroism now?" Obama said in his remarks to the soldiers Tuesday. "The answer is simple. Because we must. Because we have a sacred obligation."
For Euge, the ceremony felt personal. But he isn't sure what the recognition, four decades tardy, will mean for him now.
"I don't know how to answer that," Euge said. "Maybe, just a little bit of closure. Maybe. I don't know."