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Pauly Denetclaw

It was January 31, 1968, Dwight Birdwell was a Specialist Five in the Army, fighting in the Vietnam War. There was a large enemy attack on the Tan Son Nhut Airbase near Saigon. Many of the unit’s vehicles were either disabled or destroyed. One of the first to respond to the attack was Birdwell.

“He knew his vehicle was the first line of defense. So, Birdwell stood in his Commander’s hatch, half exposed, at times standing entirely out of the tank, fully exposed, laying down suppressive fire on the enemy,” President Joe Biden said during the White House ceremony Tuesday.

Under heavy fire, Birdwell, who is Cherokee, was able to move his tank commander and fire the tank’s weapon at enemy forces. Once his tank was incapacitated he continued fighting. He was eventually wounded but refused evacuation. Instead he led a small group of defenders to disrupt enemy attack until reinforcements could arrive.

Once reinforcements arrived and evacuation began, Birdwell, while injured, helped with the efforts of getting others out. It wasn’t until he was ordered to seek medical attention that he stopped. This battle would become known as the Tet Offensive.

“When he was ordered to load up onto the medivac helicopter, he complied, this I find amazing, only to crawl right back off the other side and to keep on fighting,” President Biden said. “That’s what you call taking orders and causing trouble. God love him. Only after reinforcement arrived and only after he helped treat the evacuees and fellow wounded did specialist Birdwell agree to evacuate himself.”

Dwight Birdwell, Cherokee, receiving the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony on July 5, 2022. (Screengrab, White House YouTube)

On December 29, 1968, Birdwell was honorably discharged. Birdwell went on to receive a Purple Heart and two Silver Stars for his bravery.

He received a call from President Joe Biden earlier this year telling him that he would receive the highest military honor. President Biden awarded Birdwell, 74, the Medal of Honor in Washington, D.C.

The Medal of Honor was awarded to Birdwell for “acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty while serving with Troop C, 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry, 25th Infantry Division, in the Republic of Vietnam on January 31, 1968.”

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“I might note, Native American communities serve, a larger percentage, serving in the United States Armed Forces at a higher percentage rate than any other cohort in America,” Biden added.

There have been 33 Medal of Honors given to Indigenous servicemen, about half from the Indian campaigns. Many Native men and women have been awarded the Bronze Star, Silver Star and Purple Heart.

Dwight Birdwell, Cherokee, receiving the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony on July 5, 2022. (Screengrab, White House YouTube)

Congressman Markwayne Mullin, R-Oklahoma, congratulated Birdwell on social media.

“Adair County's very own Specialist Five Dwight W. Birdwell will receive the Medal of Honor today for going above and beyond the call of duty while serving in Vietnam. I could not be more grateful for his extraordinary service to our country,” Mullin, Cherokee, stated on Twitter. 

He graduated from Stilwell High School in 1966. He got his undergraduate degree with academic distinction from Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in 1972. After that he went onto the University of Oklahoma’s School of Law where he graduated in the top 10 percent of his class with a juris doctorate in 1976.

Birdwell went on to marry his wife Virginia. They have two children, Stephanie Elaine and Edward Lyndon.

He would lead a successful law career that took him all the way to the Cherokee Supreme Court where he became chief justice. He served on the Tribunal from 1987 to 1999. He continues to practice law in Oklahoma City. His area of expertise is in energy, natural resources and Indian law. He co-authored “A Hundred Miles of Bad Road,” published in 1997.

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