Fifty years later, Minnesota Vietnam vet gets his honors

Mike Christofiles (Tim Middagh / Forum News Service)
Mike Christofiles (Tim Middagh / Forum News Service)

ROUND LAKE, Minn. — More than 50 years after serving his country as a pathfinder and paratrooper with the 101st Airborne in the Vietnam War, Mike Christofiles has finally received a pair of medals he earned on the battlefield.

Just days before Christmas, a package arrived at his Round Lake home containing some precious hardware — a second Bronze Star (his first, given to him in 1968, came back with him from the war), and a Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with palm.

As the medals dazzled in their cases earlier this week, Christofiles said, “They don’t mean nothing to nobody but me. They’re not going to do me any good — they can’t get me promoted, but at least I got what I earned.”

The Bronze Star with oak leaf cluster is an award for bravery, and Christofiles earned his in two separate campaigns, the first from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31, 1968, and the second from April 1, 1968, to Nov. 30, 1968. Because of his work as a pathfinder — opening up areas for American helicopters to deliver troops into battle — he moved around a lot and took part in numerous campaigns.

The Gallantry Cross was originally given to Christofiles by the South Vietnamese Army during the Tet Offensive. However, the medal given to signify outstanding service was lost during his tour of duty. He suspects it’s still lying “out there somewhere” in Vietnam.

Christofiles credits Nobles County Veterans Service Officer Bill “Brock” Brockberg for helping him to get the medals he was owed.

“He cut through the red tape and got things going,” Christofiles said.

The process began in October 2017, when Christofiles discovered the orders for the medals in the 201 file he’d requested while dealing with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“I got put in for a lot of medals over there and I didn’t receive half of them,” he said. “Then I found orders in there (the 201 file) for a second Bronze Star, and I told Brock about it.”

Brockberg initially faxed a copy of the orders to Virginia. From there, the paperwork was sent to Fort Knox, Ky., and then on to St. Louis, Mo. The request had to go before a review board, Christofiles said.

“They don’t just give medals out,” he shared. “That’s serious business.”

“I’m happy that he’s getting the awards and the recognition that comes with them that he so justly deserves,” Brockberg said. “He has a tremendous, dedicated service to Vietnam. He was there on the front lines, day in and day out. I know he saw some very rough duty. For him to be recognized, I’m very happy for him.”

Brockberg has helped several Nobles County veterans get medals they were owed in service to their country. Those sent to Christofiles are perhaps the most significant he’s helped collect.

Brockberg said it was common for veterans to be told they were going to receive medals, but then never actually get them.

“So often when you’re in a combat zone, things fall through the cracks,” he said. “Recordkeeping was much more difficult back in those days than it is now.”

“That’s what’s nice about the military now — anything that happens is in the computer and it’s a permanent record,” Christofiles added.

An enlisted man

A native of Chicago, Christofiles enlisted in the U.S. Army in November 1966, more than a year and a half after the first American combat troops landed near Da Nang.

While in basic training, Christofiles volunteered for the Airborne division. After his advanced training, he completed both jump school and pathfinder school before being assigned to the 101st Airborne.

Though he did many jumps in training, he did zero jumps in Vietnam during his one-year tour from December 1967 to December 1968. Instead, his job was to set up landing zones for helicopters.

“They’d send a few, maybe two or three, pathfinders in a few days before, and then as the helicopters are coming in, you’d blow any trees or obstacles so the helicopters could come in and at least hover at a safe height for the troops to dismount,” Christofiles explained. “It was grunt work, you know, but it was good work. I liked my job.

“I like the time I spent in Vietnam now that I look back on it, but I didn’t like it when I was there.”

In the decades since the war, Christofiles said he’s read every book he’s ever seen about Vietnam.

“I find out how we got screwed over there by our own government and boy, that burns me,” he said. “We weren’t there for the reasons that we were supposed to be there. I can’t figure out why we were there. I don’t know why we were there.”

Stories of war

Though Christofiles can easily talk with other Vietnam veterans about his wartime experience, it’s not as easy to talk with veterans of World War II or Korea.

“Their war was not my war. Our wars are all different,” he said.

His war was certainly different from the Gulf War in which both of his sons served in combat. The oldest, Michael, plans to retire from the U.S. Army. Now stationed in Korea, he did three tours each in Iraq and Afghanistan in the Stryker Brigade. Youngest son Brent served in the U.S. Marines and was injured in Iraq.

“I’m very proud of both of them,” Christofiles said.

Looking back on his own service, he said, “I have no guilt; I have no remorse about Vietnam.”

He was a soldier with a job to do and he did it.

“We just went where they sent us. Vietnam was helter-skelter; there was a lot of disorganization there,” he said. “We were doing jungle warfare — hit and pull back or hit and overrun, depending on how many casualties you took. It was a lot different than conventional warfare.”

Battle trophy

Soldiers were frequently told by officers not to send any war contraband back home to the U.S., threatening that the military X-rayed every package mailed out. Christofiles abided at first, but then decided to send some daggers home to his brother. When the package arrived at its destination unscathed, he started sending a lot more war memorabilia through the mail.

“I think the only thing I didn’t send home was a tank because I couldn’t find a box big enough,” he said with a laugh.

He’d get empty cardboard C-ration cases, fill them up, tape and tie them with twine and mail them off. All of his war memorabilia took that route except one piece — a bolt action rifle with a grenade launcher attached to it.

“I’d never seen one like it before — it was beautiful,” Christofiles said. “The rifle I got the day I got the Gallantry Cross.”

It was taken from either a Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army soldier, he said.

“You can take a war trophy home as long as it’s not automatic,” Christofiles said. “I had a lot of officers try to talk me out of that one.”

He had to get special clearance from both the South Vietnam and American embassies before taking the gun home with him from Vietnam.

Among his other mementos of Vietnam is the U.S. Airborne Trooper ring specially made for him by a Washington state jeweler whose son served as Christofiles’ lieutenant.

After returning from Vietnam, Cristofiles spent the remainder of his enlistment with the Fifth Infantry detachment of the Airborne Pathfinders at Fort Ruker, Ala. There, he set up landing zones in southern Alabama and northern Florida for trainee pilots.

Upon his honorable discharge, he returned to Chicago and became a unionized steel worker, taking early retirement when the plant shuttered. In November 1996, he and his wife, Jewel, a native of Round Lake, moved to her hometown in southern Minnesota near the Iowa border.