Uncertain about his future and bored with academics, Charles Hagemeister left college after a year and a half and was working as a warehouseman when he was drafted in 1966. After finishing basic training, he was chosen to become a medical corpsman; he went to Vietnam in November 1966, assigned to the 1st Cavalry (Airmobile). He flew into Pleiku on a transport plane that had no windows. Coming down the back ramp of the plane he was hit by a tidal wave of heat unlike anything he had ever experienced in his native Nebraska. It was then that he realized that he was truly in a foreign place.
Early in the morning on March 20, 1967, an Army company operating in Binh Dinh Province was involved in heavy fighting with the enemy. The company's officers had been killed or wounded and the force was in danger of being overrun. Specialist 4th Class Hagemeister's platoon was ordered out on a rescue mission that afternoon. Soon after scrambling out of the helicopters that brought them close to the action, the Americans were moving through the graveyard of a small village when they were ambushed from three sides by a North Vietnamese battalion supported by a Vietcong heavy-weapons company.
Two of his fellow soldiers went down immediately, and Hagemeister had to run through heavy fire to treat them; then he had to order two new recruits who had been in Vietnam for only a few days to protect them. When he went to help his fallen platoon leader, he saw that the man was mortally wounded. Looking around, Hagemeister realized that more Americans were dead or wounded than were able-bodied. He knew that he would have to take charge.
For the rest of the day Hagemeister moved from one position to another, treating and encouraging his comrades. The fighting was at close range, and he could not call in air support. At nightfall as he tried to move the most seriously wounded Americans to safety, he and the others came under sniper fire. Hagemeister picked up a rifle and, aiming at the muzzle flash, shot the man out of a tree. He killed three more North Vietnamese silhouetted against the burning village as they ran toward his flank. Using a rifle, Hagemeister took out
a machine-gun nest a few yards away from some wounded GIs. He continued to move the injured soldiers out of harm's way until about midnight, when his unit withdrew to a defensive position.
A little more than a year later, Hagemeister was back in the United States, a few days from being discharged from the Army, when he was told that he was to be awarded the Medal of Honor. During the White House ceremony on May 14, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson asked him, "How long do you have left in the service, son?" Hagemeister replied with a smile, "Seventy-two hours, sir." The president turned to a member of the Army brass and said, "I want you to talk to this young man after we're done here and change his mind." The officer did. Hagemeister reenlisted and later became a commissioned officer. He stayed in the Army until 1990, when he retired as a lieutenant colonel.