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June 7, 1998

Medal of Honor binds war heroes from every walk of life

by Jim Yardley
The New York Times

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, was the oldest of them all.

Arriving from every corner of the country, the 78 men who gathered here this weekend represented almost half the 169 living recipients of the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award for bravery. They had chosen Saratoga Springs for their convention because of the town's rich military history, and on Friday they paraded to the cheers of more than 30,000 people.

Gen. George Patton once said, "I'd give my immortal soul for that medal." He never got the award, which is bestowed by the president and Congress. Perhaps that helps explain the humility of most of the men who did. 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 most of the recipients seemed.

 

'Something had to be done'

"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 all 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 give speeches and 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 any contact with his peers and refused to make public appearances. Another recipient lives in the South Carolina mountains and has broken all contact with other Medal of Honor recipients.

But for most, the Medal of Honor has bound together men who were once strangers. Ray now 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 bring 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 last two years, the society has begun meeting every year so older members will have more opportunities to see one another.

 

Famous participants

On Friday night, the society held a formal 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. In 1992, he was Ross Perot's running mate in the presidential campaign. At the banquet, the society bestowed special honors on former Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas, himself a World War II veteran.

William McGonagle, 72, wore a powder-blue jacket with the Medal of Honor patch stitched on the chest. He had been the commander of the USS Liberty, the American ship that was attacked in the Mediterranean in 1967 during the Six Day War between Israel and several Arab nations. Without explanation, McGonagle said, Israeli jets attacked with rockets and sprayed napalm. McGonagle stayed on the bridge, despite injuries, commanding his crew and later navigating the crippled ship to safety.

Taking a shower not long ago, McGonagle noticed that his washcloth had gotten tangled on his chest. An old piece of shrapnel had come loose and was sticking through his ribs. When he pulled it out, he crumpled to the floor of the shower screaming.

"I asked my wife for a Band-Aid, and she said, `What do you need it for?' " he recalled. " `You just took a shower.' "

Ronald Rosser, 68, served in Korea and Vietnam. In Korea, he parachuted into enemy territory, then led repeated attacks on enemy positions, killing 13 men. But he said he was most nervous when he received his Medal of Honor from President Truman in 1952.

"I don't think about the war," he said. "I try not to think about it."

 

Though recipients include Eddie Rickenbacker, Audie Murphy and Douglas MacArthur, the Medal of Honor initially was not very exclusive. It was first presented during the Civil War, and President Abraham Lincoln offered the medal to an entire regiment (864 members) as an inducement to remain on active duty. Those medals were rescinded in 1916, when a military panel established that a soldier or sailor must exhibit extraordinary heroism in combat to qualify.

For the same reason, the panel rescinded the only Medal of Honor ever presented to a woman, Dr. Mary Walker, a Civil War medic and surgeon. An early advocate of women's rights, Walker refused to give it back. Only 60 years later, long after her death, did Congress officially restore it to her. A total of 3,408 people have received the honor.

 

 

1998, by The New York times
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