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Dakota Life 25: A conversation with Michael Fitzmaurice

Image courtesy of the Rapid City Journal

This article is from the November 2022 issue of SDPB Magazine. See the full issue HERE.

Michael Fitzmaurice is South Dakota's lone living Medal of Honor recipient. Fitzmaurice was born in Jamestown, North Dakota and raised in Cavour. Shortly after graduating from high school, he and two friends drove to Sioux Falls together to enlist.

Within months of starting basic training at Fort Lewis, Washington, he was in Vietnam.

In the Spring of 1971, the Second Squadron, 17th Cavalry, 101st Airborne, was guarding the airstrip at Khe Sanh when they came under rocket and mortar attack. Viet Cong infantry moved in for the kill after.

Three grenades landed in the bunker where Fitzmaurice was holed up with a buddy. He threw two back and smothered the last with his flack jacket. Seriously injured and partially blinded, he refused treatment to keep fighting, taking an enemy soldier's rifle when his own was disabled.

How did he do it?

"There was no place to go," says Fitzmaurice. "So, what do you do? I mean, I never figured I'm surviving. But I had my buddy Phil with me, and I was trying to help him out. It's just kind of a matter of just survival."

When the fight was over, Fitzmaurice was evacuated and spent thirteen months recovering from his injuries at Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora, Colorado. President Richard Nixon presented him with the Medal of Honor at the White House on October 15, 1973.

SDPB featured Michael Fitzmaurice's story in 1998. Recently, we paid another visit to the humble military hero.

SDPB: How has receiving the Medal of Honor changed your life?

Michael Fitzmaurice: If it wouldn't have been for my experience there, I would've never got to meet all the nice people. With the Medal of Honor, I travel all over and meet nice people.

SDPB: Have you met many other recipients?

Michael Fitzmaurice: We have a convention every year. When I first started going, there was 254 living recipients. So, I met a lot of them -- from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Right now, I think there's maybe 65 alive. It's a dwindling club, I guess.

They don't talk about war. The stuff it's -- your grandkids and what's going on in everybody's lives, just like a family reunion.

SDPB: You worked at the VA for quite a few years. How did that work out for you?

Michael Fitzmaurice: I worked at a meat packing house in Huron. I worked there at nights when I was in high school and then got on there full time, then went to the military. I was guaranteed a job when I came back, so went back and worked there till they closed up. Then I went out to Reno and tried a VA benefits counselor job, which I really didn't like. Came back home and went back to work for two more packing houses.

Then I got a chance to get in the VA [in Sioux Falls] and I worked there for 23 years as a plumber. In fact, my wife and I both retired from there. She was payroll clerk, and I was a plumber. Every day you got to visit with veterans, and it was just a great job.

SDPB: You've got some notoriety. When you get around the state, do people recognize you?

Michael Fitzmaurice: Yes. Once in a while they do. It kind of makes you feel good. But I mean, I'm no better than anybody else. Everybody done what they were supposed to do.

SDPB: What advice would you have for a young person thinking about enlisting today?

Michael Fitzmaurice: Well, I'd tell them to look into the Air Force. They're going to have some job training when they're done, and it'll be good for them in the long run. There really isn't much need for bullet stoppers once something like that is over. So, get in there and learn something.