Highest honor
Sister of Branford soldier killed in Vietnam on a quest for understanding

Michelle Tuccitto, Register Staff November 05, 2000
Jean-reflection.jpg (5662 bytes)
Jean Risley stands in front of the Vietnam Memorial in New Haven, where her brother's name is engraved. She wants her brother, Robert A. Tillquist, to receive the Medal of Honor. Peter Casolino/Register

Robert Tillquist never wanted to go to Vietnam and risk his life, but what he witnessed after his arrival changed his mind.

In a letter to a former teacher at New Haven's Wilbur Cross High School, the 23-year-old Branford man wrote about orphanages that were overcrowded with boys and girls who had witnessed the massacre of their parents.

He described meeting young children whose limbs had been brutally amputated.

He told of fertile fields that had been ravaged and destroyed just to deprive the people of sustenance.

"When you see this and much more (things to make even the strongest of men cry out in anger at the outrage of it all), then you understand the reason for your being here," he wrote. "I came here afraid for my life. Now I would gladly lay down my life for these little (but only in stature) people."

The letter was written just days before Tillquist died in battle, on Nov. 4, 1965. In the minutes before his death, Tillquist, a medic with Company B, 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry, and first Cavalry division, had been trying to save three wounded comrades.

For his bravery, Tillquist was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross.

His sister, Jean Tillquist Risley of Coventry, has been working in recent months to get this upgraded to the Medal of Honor, the military's highest award.

"I loved my brother very much and I would really like to achieve this goal for him," said Risley. "First, I think he earned it, and second, it would finally heal me, which is partly why I'm doing this, so I'll remember and go through it."

The Distinguished Service Cross award includes a description of Tillquist's actions the day he died while on a search and destroy mission near Plei Me, Vietnam. Tillquist's platoon came upon a well-fortified emplacement and gunfire erupted.

During the fray, one of Tillquist's comrades, platoon Sgt. Charles Cox, was wounded.

Tillquist went to the man's aid, administered first aid and moved him to a more sheltered position.

He then noticed that another of his comrades, Sgt. Norman Tye, had been wounded.

Tillquist charged through the barrage, administered first aid and moved Tye to a safer place.

Yet another of his comrades, Specialist William Williams, fell wounded directly in front of a Viet Cong machine gun emplacement.

Exhausted, Tillquist stripped off his gear, grabbed his rifle and medical kit and began to crawl to the aid of the third wounded man.

As he administered first aid this time, Tillquist was mortally wounded in the back by machine-gun fire, the award says.

He was one of the first to be killed in Vietnam from Connecticut and the first from Branford. About 500 Connecticut soldiers died in Vietnam.

At the time, Tillquist's commanding officers applied for the Distinguished Service Cross rather than the Medal of Honor because they were confident of rapid approval of the former, according to a letter to Risley from retired Lt. Col. Graham Avera.

"There has not been a day since that action in November, 1965 where Specialist Tillquist paid the ultimate sacrifice for his comrades that I don't think of him," Avera said in a separate letter used as part of the application. "His award should definitely be the Medal of Honor."

Risley has appealed in recent months to officials like U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman for help getting her brother's award upgraded. Each has written to the Department of the Army on her behalf.

The Military Awards Branch in Arlington, Virginia, is currently reviewing her request. A decision is expected to take up to a year.

Risley often visits the Vietnam Memorial at Long Wharf, where her brother's name is engraved. She always brings a yellow rose, his favorite, and a letter from her grandson, Ben. Her brother's grave is in Branford, she said.

"It is hard for me to look at," she said, fighting back tears during a recent visit to Long Wharf.

She said she has blocked out some of her memories.

"I remember it happening, but I just didn't want to accept it," said Risley. "I remember people saying that he was a hero, but I didn't want him to be dead. I made believe that it was never him."

His personality and sense of humor still stand out, she said. While watching a scary movie, he got dressed in a funny hat, sneaked outside and peered in the window to scare everyone.

Her father died shortly after her brother. She lost her mother 12 years ago, and a second brother died of a heart attack a decade back. She still has a sister who lives in Indiana.

During a recent visit to the Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C., Risley saw her brother's name on the wall and decided she was finally ready to learn more about his death, and why people called him a hero.

And so her quest began. She started researching what happened to him. Risley bought a computer a couple of years ago and started to correspond with veterans.

She managed to locate one of the men her brother helped during the gunfire in Plei Me, Sgt. Norman Tye, in Kentucky.

In a letter to Risley which she used as part of the application, Tye said he never lost consciousness when he got shot.

"The medic Tillquist got to me real fast," Tye wrote. "There was a lot of firing going on over our heads. Tillquist and some of the guys got me on a stretcher and out of there to a chopper. No doubt the medic Tillquist helped to save my life."

Cox died the same day as Tillquist. Risley has been unable to determine what became of Williams, she said.

"People ask me, 'Why does he deserve this medal over all the others?' " said Risley. "I think they all deserve it. To have gone and fought and be treated the way they were when they came home."

Several veterans who fought alongside Tillquist have aided Risley in her quest, she said.

"It must be hard for some of them to remember this, but they will not quit," said Risley.

"Some of them have gotten on with their lives, while others are incapacitated by the war. They don't want pity. They need people to understand the horrifying ordeal they went through."

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