Most decorated Cuban-American Vietnam vet Jacinto Acebal dies at 75

Jacinto ‘Ace’ Acebal is comfortable behind a Vietnam-era .50 caliber machine gun mounted on a vintage Jeep under I-95, west of the Flagler Courthouse in Miami in November 2013. He earned 18 medals for his service during Vietnam. Debbie Musgrove Zimmerman Miami Congress Office

Jacinto Acebal was honored as the most decorated Cuban-American soldier of the Vietnam War. The distinction: 18 medals during his tour of duty from 1964 to 1965.

He was 23 when he was sent to Vietnam as a military adviser — six years after emigrating to Miami from Havana in 1958. When he returned, however, he faced a hostile homecoming, fueled by anti-war protests.

“I’d been insulted, called a baby-killer, a criminal. To my face. Here in Miami. If I was supposed to be a bad guy, I wasn’t interested in the medals,” Acebal told the Miami Herald in 1983.

Acebal, who died Wednesday at 75 after a two-year battle with cancer, had a conversion when he visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington in 1983.

He was moved. People, after all, did care. And suddenly, at age 41, so did he. With a vengeance.

He contacted then-Rep. Claude Pepper, the legendary Democratic South Florida congressman. A congressional aide determined that Acebal, a machine gunner and helicopter crew chief, had earned the most medals during 544 hours of combat missions.