Cardiff author shines spotlight on Medal of Honor recipient in ‘Legend’

A New York Times best-selling author, Eric Blehm is known for telling the stories of those who serve.

His latest, “Legend,” recounts the experiences of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Roy Benavidez, who rescued fellow soldiers trapped behind enemy lines during the Vietnam War.

While now a well-regarded military biographer, Blehm got his start in journalism as the editor of Transworld Snowboarding Magazine. It was a fitting job for the avid surfer and snowboarder, who grew up in Valley Center as well as Escondido and now lives in Cardiff.

Considering Blehm’s grasp of elite special operations, it may surprise some to learn that he was never in the military.

“The closest I ever got to the military is when I was in school and keeping my hair cropped really short so I could drive past the guards at Pendleton and surf Del Mar jetties,” Blehm said of his youth.

But he always had a deep respect for those in uniform, thanks to his parents. As a kid, his mom would share mementos from World War II to remind him of soldiers’ sacrifices.

“They would always say, ‘The reason we have this freedom is people put their lives on the line so we could enjoy this life,” he said.

After 9/11, Blehm knew he wanted to document the lives of those who serve.

“I asked myself, ‘What’s your part in all of this? What can you do? Being a writer and an author, I thought, ‘History is happening now. I have to chronicle this.’ And at that point, they were talking a lot about the World War II veterans that were passing away. A lot of them never talked about their experiences. That struck me.”

His previous book, “Fearless,” tells the real-life story of Adam Brown, who overcame drug addiction and even jail time to accomplish his childhood dream of becoming a Navy SEAL. “Fearless” has sold nearly 400,000 copies and is being turned into a Hollywood film.

When Blehm came across Benavidez’s story, he knew he had his next book.

“His story is the most fascinating, unbelievable story I’ve ever, ever come across,” Blehm said. “When I did my research and saw it was true, I just had to write it.”

A brief overview of the day that made Benavidez a legend: Flown into battle on May 2, 1968, Benavidez jumped from a hovering helicopter and ran 100 yards through enemy fire.

Even though wounded, he reached the perimeter of a decimated special forces team. Providing medical care and encouragement, he spearheaded a defense and rescue effort. Benavidez persevered through bullet, bayonet and shrapnel wounds that day to rescue fellow soldiers in a now-declassified battle. Eventually, his acts of valor earned him the Medal of Honor.

His humble beginnings add to his legendary reputation. Orphaned at age 7, he was raised by his aunt and uncle in a small Texas town. As a child, he picked cotton alongside his family after school. And being of Mexican and Yaqui Indian ancestry, Benavidez also faced prejudice and racism.

Blehm said the May 2 mission, the crux of the story, is in many ways a microcosm of the Vietnam War.

“By wrapping around the people, the politics — the good, the bad and the ugly of this mission — you get a really strong look at the Vietnam war,” he said.

Blehm said another reason he wrote the book was to give young people a stronger understanding of the Vietnam War, adding that some school history books gloss over it.

On the same note, “Legend” also debunks common misconceptions about Vietnam War veterans. For instance, that they were all draftees who didn’t believe in what they were fighting for.

The book, he stated, is neither “pro war or anti-war — it’s just war.”

“It’s raw, it’s bloody and it’s real,” Blehm said.

It took Blehm two years to research and write “Legend.” To give a complete picture of Benavidez’s life, Blehm combed through countless declassified documents, carefully looked over boxes of Benavidez family letters and interviewed those who witnessed his courageous acts.

“I want to preserve these stories for future generations,” Blehm said. “Their stories and legacies are a way people can learn — it’s a window into history.”

Blehm will be at Barnes & Noble in Oceanside at 7 p.m. May 4 to talk about “Legend” and sign copies. For more on Blehm and a list of places to buy “Legend,” visit www.ericblehm.com.

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