Combat veterans honored decades after service in Billings ceremony

Jordon Niedermeier

A pair of U.S. Army veterans received more than a dozen medals Thursday in a long-overdue ceremony in the Judge Jameson Federal Building.

In 1968, Thomas Rockroads Jr. made the trek to a selective service office in Hardin and volunteered for the Army at the age of 17. A year later, Rockroads was deployed to Vietnam with the Army Airborne Infantry. His war experience began Sept. 19, 1969, and over the next year he jumped into spots too hot for helicopters to land.

“We’d get in the chopper when they needed reinforcements. Then we’d jump into the firefight against the Viet Cong, or NVAs,” Rockroads said.

About 45 years and one month after his tour ended and he walked off a Boeing 727 “freedom bird,” he received seven commendations for his service.

“I wasn’t really too sure what I earned,” Rockroads said. “After our tour of duty, there wasn’t any kind of ceremony or any kind of awards ceremony like this.”

In the small gathering on Thursday, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester handed Rockroads the Bronze Star for valor, Combat Infantry Badge, National Defense Service Medal, Sharpshooter Medal with auto rifle and rifle bars, Marksman Medal with machine gun bar, and the Parachutist’s Badge-basic.

The other veteran honored Thursday served decades earlier and thousands of miles away.

World War II veteran William H. Sampsel died at 88 years old in 2012, but his daughter, Priscilla Bell, was present to honor her father and accept the seven medals he earned, including the Purple Heart. Bell said the medal awarded for service members wounded in combat had acted as the catalyst for her father’s delayed recognition.

“The way we found out about his medal is my daughter was sitting downtown eating lunch and she noticed his name on the (Montana Purple Heart Memorial),” Bell said. “When she asked my dad about it, he just said ‘Oh. Well, yeah.”

Sampsel was originally from Pennsylvania and joined the Army after attending the University of Illinois. He joined the U.S. Army, and just like all three of his brothers, he served in World War II. Sampsel left the service as a second lieutenant, Bell said.

Sampsel worked as a geologist and moved his family to Billings in 1961 to work for an oil company. His name found its way onto one of the eight panels of the downtown memorial, and in a windowless room in the Judge Jameson Federal Building, his country finally recognized his contribution.