78 gather for Medal of Honor reunion Recipients say award transformed their lives, thrust them into public eye

June 07, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- They wore baseball caps and golf shirts and, some of them, hearing aids. They talked about wives and ex-wives, reminisced about 10-cent bottles of beer and just laughed a lot. Only the pointed gold medals dangling from their necks hinted that this was a convention of old heroes.

There was Lewis Lee Millett, his Army crew cut still sharp at age 77, who in Korea led a bayonet charge up a hill against enemy fire. And Ronald Ray, 56, who in Vietnam shielded his men from a grenade by diving in front of it. And Jack Montgomery, a small, quiet man of 80, who in World War II killed 11 Germans and captured 32 others in a single battle.

"We're just a bunch of old, beat-up soldiers," said John Finn, a Navy lieutenant in World War II, who, at 89, is the oldest.

Arriving from every corner of the country, the 78 men who gathered here this weekend represented almost half of the 169 living recipients of the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award for bravery.

If, in the public imagination, a Medal of Honor recipient is Gary Cooper as Alvin York or Sylvester Stallone as Rambo, what is striking in reality is how ordinary and unassuming recipients seemed.

"Something had to be done," said Clarence Sasser, 50, an Army medic in Vietnam, explaining why he crawled through rice paddies under enemy fire to rescue wounded men in his company. "Somebody had to do something."

They agreed that the Medal of Honor had transformed, if not defined, their lives and, for many, thrust them into the public eye without any preparation. Suddenly, someone like Nick Bacon, a self-described country boy from Arkansas who fought in Vietnam, found himself invited to presidential inaugurations, an honor bestowed on all recipients. But Bacon also discovered that he was expected to be a role model.

"You can't screw up," said Bacon, who is now the director of veterans affairs for the state of Arkansas. "You're representing everybody and everything the medal represents."

Not everyone has embraced the attention. Bacon said one Arkansas veteran shunned contact with his peers and refused to make public appearances. Another recipient lives in the South Carolina mountains and has broken off contact with other recipients.

But for most, the Medal of Honor has bound together men who were once strangers. Ray lives on the same street in St. Petersburg Beach, Fla., as two other recipients from Vietnam, Frank Miller and Gary Littrell. Others keep in regular contact. But the conventions of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society are what brings members together in what they describe as a family reunion.

Chartered by an act of Congress, the society was founded in 1958, and, according to its bylaws, the group is required to meet every two years. But because at least 15 recipients have died in the past two years, the society has begun meeting every year so older members will have more opportunities to see one another.

On Friday night, the society held a banquet attended by some of its most famous members, including Vice Adm. James Stockdale, who was captured during the Vietnam War and inflicted a near-fatal wound on himself rather than disclose critical information to his captors.

Ronald Rosser served in Korea and Vietnam. In Korea, he parachuted into enemy territory and led attacks on enemy positions, killing 13 men. But he said he was most nervous when he received his Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman in 1952.

Pub Date: 6/07/98

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