Richard Pittman was fifteen years old when he heard John F. Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you" speech and decided that he would do something for his country when he got out of school. After graduating from high school in 1963, he tried to enlist in the Army, Navy, and Air Force, but he was turned down by each because he was legally blind in one eye. However, he managed to get accepted by the Marine Reserve. Then, at one meeting during his Marine recruit training, an officer asked if anyone present wanted to go on active duty. Pittman immediately raised his hand.
In the spring of 1966 Lance Corporal Pittman went to Vietnam as part of the 5th Marines. By midsummer, his unit was involved in search-and-destroy operations in the northern part of South Vietnam near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which separated the South from the North. On July 24, Pittman was at the rear of his company column near the DMZ when heavy gunfire erupted ahead. His company had been ambushed by elements of the North Vietnamese Army in one of its first major incursions into South Vietnam.
As Pittman and a Navy corpsman started forward, he almost collided with a Marine standing in the trail holding an M-60 machine gun. "You going to use this weapon?" Pittman asked. The Marine stared back blankly. Pittman grabbed the gun and several belts of ammunition and moved toward the heaviest fighting. He was surprised by the number of dead and wounded Marines littering both sides of the trail. When his helmet was shot off his head, he hit the dirt. He saw the corpsman get up and try to go to a wounded man, but he was hit and went down. As Pittman continued on, he quickly destroyed the two positions that shot at him. Then, standing up, cradling the machine gun in the crook of his arm and firing as he went, Pittman moved to the head of the column where the North Vietnamese regulars were rushing his beleaguered comrades. As he reached the position where the leading Marines had fallen, he was suddenly attacked by thirty to forty of the enemy. He calmly established a position in the middle of the trail and, with bullets whizzing past his head, he raked the advancing enemy with devastating machine-gun fire. He continued firing until he felt a concussion on his side. At first he thought he had been wounded, but his gun had been struck by enemy fire and disabled. He dropped it and picked up an AK-47 that one of the enemy soldiers had left; he continued firing until he was out of ammunition. Next he picked up a .45 pistol left by a fallen Marine and used it to kill two enemy soldiers as they were almost on top of him. Finally out of ammunition altogether, he threw his only grenade. Inexplicably, the remaining North Vietnamese retreated. Back at his own lines, he discovered that two-thirds of his company had been killed or wounded in the intense engagement.