In the spring of 1971, the 2nd Squadron of the 17th Cavalry was guarding the airstrip at Khe Sanh in South Vietnam for American planes flying missions into Laos. At about 2:00 a.m. on March 23, Michael Fitzmaurice—at twenty-one one of the older men in his unit—had just returned from guard duty to his bunker living quarters. The North Vietnamese had been intermittently mortaring American positions during the day, but the night seemed calm. Suddenly, the shells started coming in again. Specialist Fourth Class Fitzmaurice realized it was more than a mortar attack when he looked out of the bunker and saw that a large number of North Vietnamese sappers had charged through the perimeter wire and were inside the U.S. position on a suicide mission.

Fitzmaurice and a buddy got out to the trench that connected the Americans' sandbagged fighting positions. Enemy sappers were everywhere; they tossed two explosive charges at Fitzmaurice, who managed to throw them back. A third one thudded to the ground near him; figuring that it was about to go off, he threw his flak jacket and body over it. The explosion blew the door shut on the bunker, trapping the sleeping GIs inside, but it saved their lives.

Fitzmaurice suffered multiple wounds and was blinded in his left eye. As the enemy spread out through the area, he figured that the end was coming and that he might as well go out fighting, so he got to his feet. Barely able to see because of the blood on his face, he climbed out of the trench, and as his buddy yelled directions to him, he began firing at the sappers. When a North Vietnamese grenade destroyed his rifle, he knelt down and felt around on the ground for another. Suddenly an enemy soldier was on top of him; he engaged the North Vietnamese in hand-to-hand combat and killed him. Then he found another weapon, returned to the trench, and began to fire on the enemy again. He refused to be evacuated until the fight was over.

Besides the loss of sight, Fitzmaurice's eardrums were shattered and he had shrapnel throughout his body. He was hospitalized for the next thirteen months. In 1973, out of the service for about two years, he was working in a meatpacking plant when Washington called to inform him that he was to receive the Medal of Honor. He traveled to the White House, where President Richard Nixon awarded him the medal on October 15.