The award was presented in a ceremony at the Palo Alto VA medical center complex. Sgt. Dentino had received several medals for his service in Vietnam, including a Bronze Star with Valor, and was promoted posthumously to sergeant, said VA spokesman Michael Hill-Jackson.
The story of Sgt. Dentino's death comes from Ms. Dentino and Michael B. Christy, the company commander of Sgt. Dentino's unit in Vietnam. Sgt. Dentino had been in Vietnam 10 months of a 13-month deployment and, in recognition of his meritorious service, was scheduled to leave early, Ms. Dentino said.
His company had been the last to leave Cambodia in 1970. The night he was killed about 85 men in the company were sleeping in hooches (temporary shelters made from a poncho and a mosquito net), Mr. Christy said.
North Vietnamese soldiers had penetrated the base's perimeter. Upon learning of this and to discourage an enemy attack, U.S. forces had begun mortar fire in the fog at around 5 a.m., but they used mortars that had been judged to be sub par, Mr. Christy said.
"Merle's hooch was directly next to mine since he was my radio operator," Mr. Christy said. "A large piece of (mortar) shrapnel barely missed my head as I lay awake and apparently was the one that hit Merle directly in his head. He died instantly while sleeping."
Ms. Dentino said she wanted to put the ceremony together so his buddies could attend, "They're very enthusiastic, respectful and very excited," she said.
Why is the Army 43 years late with this award? The fact of the enemy's proximity to the scene of Sgt. Dentino's death did not get reported, Mr. Christy said. Of the 29 other soldiers in Sgt. Dentino's company wounded in the same incident, all received Purple Hearts, he said.
With 35 percent of his company dead or wounded, they were airlifted out and reassigned away from active combat until replacements could arrive, Mr. Christy said.