Medal of Honor testifies to more than just courage

May 30, 1993|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,Staff Writer

The cavalcade of Medal of Honor recipients that John Baca joined reads like a Who's Who of military heroes.

There were Sgt. Alvin C. York, Maj. Gregory "Pappy" Boyington, Brig. Gen. James H. Doolittle, 1st Lt. Audie Murphy, and the only father-son recipients, Arthur and Douglas MacArthur.

Union Seaman John Williams was the first. While serving aboard the USS Commodore Perry in October 1861, he held his position against withering fire from Confederate batteries at Franklin, Va., to almost single-handedly win the battle on the Blackwater River.

The most recent recipient was Navy SEAL Michael E. Thornton, who in 1972 carried a wounded comrade on his back for 24 hours through thick Vietnamese jungle. He swam with the wounded man in tow for three hours before being rescued in the South China Sea.

Almost all recipients were people from ordinary backgrounds who demonstrated uncommon courage, grit and determination in extraordinary combat situations.

"I would," President Harry S. Truman said in 1946, "rather have a Medal of Honor than be president of the United States."

The first Medals of Honor were awarded during the Civil War. Many of the 1,527 recipients were soldiers who captured a Confederate flag, depriving the other side of a rallying point for counterattack by taking their signal device.

The Medal of Honor's only female recipient served during the Civil War. Mary Walker, a surgeon, asked for and secured a congressional order to wear pants while tending to Union soldiers on the battlefield. She was decorated for her action during the battle of Chickamauga. Confederate forces later took her prisoner.

The medal has been awarded to soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen for bravery on battlefields such as Apache Pass, Antietam, Cold Harbor, Manila, Iwo Jima, Midway, the Chosin Reservoir.

Mike Williams, director of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society in Mount Pleasant, S.C., said anyone in the military, including those of a general's rank, must salute someone wearing the medal. Even the president of the United States must stand up and greet the recipient, Mr. Williams said.

A Medal of Honor holder can fly for free on military flights anywhere and gets a monthly stipend of $200.

The conditions for receiving the medal are stringent, Mr. Williams said. Two persons must witness the action. A commanding officer must recommend the individual.

The chain of command and a five-member congressional committee must approve the recommendation and justifying data. Congress then votes.

Earning the decoration is difficult enough. Living up to society's expectations -- or a recipient's own perceptions of what others expect -- can be equally daunting, says one well-known recipient.

Sen. Bob Kerrey, a 1992 Democratic presidential candidate from Nebraska, was awarded the Medal of Honor for action in Vietnam.

Receiving it "screwed some people up; any kind of fame like that does," he said. "Here were everyday guys thrust into an incredible combat situation and who have unrealistic expectations placed upon them when they got home."

"People usually look at you as a Medal of Honor recipient, not yourself. . . . You are expected to act in a certain way, as others perceive you.

"Acts of this magnitude have little to do with courage and bravery, words we toss around. It is caring more about someone instead of yourself. They are more important than you are."

"Only in that moment of truth are you a free person. It is utter and exquisite unselfishness. It is the most powerful kind of love."

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