BUFFALO, NY (WBFO) – He earned a Purple Heart medal three times during his military service. They were delivered to him by mail. Monday morning, at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park, Army Sergeant First Class William “Roland” Hayes was presented with all his due decorations in a more dignified ceremony. He was also recognized for the battles he fought on two fronts, including one within the ranks.
Hayes enlisted in 1966 at the age of 18. He was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division and the following year, he was stationed at a base in Vietnam, where he served as a cook. But he’d soon end up on the front lines, courtesy of a heated, racially-charged argument he got into at the base with an officer.
“The reason I stood up for myself was because my father taught me to stand up for myself,” Hayes said. “Back then in the 50s, my father said whatever you do, stand up for yourself. And when you do, there might be consequences you might have to suffer, but sometimes you go with the consequences.”
He found himself involved in the Tet Offensive, a major surprise attack launched by the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong on five cities in South Vietnam, in January 1968.
He was wounded in battle three times in a seven-month span in 1968, suffering gunshot wounds in his legs and a shrapnel injury to his face, the latter wound caused by an exploding enemy grenade.
In addition to his three Purple Heart medals, Hayes was formally presented Monday with a Bronze Star, Parachutist Badge, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Combat Infantryman Badge and Vietnam Campaign Medal.
As Higgins stated during the formal presentation, this was a day to make right an old wrong and give Hayes a dignified presentation.
“We’re all indebted to him,” Higgins said. “The Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts, I think, really distinguishes him in terms of recognition of military honor.”
Higgins also recognized the racial discrimination Hayes faced, even in an integrated military. Hayes also stated that it was real.
“The first time I got down to Georgia I got off the bus, and it said ‘Whites Only’ at a drinking fountain,” he told WBFO. “Here I am, in a uniform, but I can’t drink out of this fountain.”
He and his comrades learned quickly, though, that in the heat of the battle there was no color barrier in a foxhole.
“When you get into combat, and you have all these good ol’ Southern boys and these good ol’ Northern boys and these Eastern and Western boys getting together, and they realize that they’re in this spot together and there’s only one way out, you’d be surprised at how quickly everything melts away except camaraderie.”
Hayes is a tall, boisterous man. He’s also gifted with a warm sense of humor and used it to discuss receiving no less than three Purple Heart medals.
“I always tell everybody I wasn’t running fast enough,” Hayes said with a laugh. “It’s a miracle that I’m still alive. It’s a miracle that I was able to have children, and it’s a miracle that my grandchildren and my children are here to see me.”
This time, guests were running – or walking – straight up to Hayes to share their gratitude.