A few years ago, on a brilliant, desert-dry day in eastern Colorado, a car rolled up to the entrance of a lovely, old hotel. Attached at the back was a bronze medallion that announced that the driver was a recipient of the Medal of Honor. I watched from a shady nook in the sandstone wall of the building. I wanted to see what a Medal of Honor winner looked like. I was researching the archaeology of courage. I was brushing the sand gently from the gray-white bones that had suddenly revealed themselves at my feet. I was on my hands and knees peering at the disinterred remnants of a remarkable species.
The guy looked like my grandfather. Courage, apparently, doesn't make much of a splash. He was medium height, a bit stooped, white hair, plumper than he might have wished, smiling, moving carefully up the two steps and through the big door that the uniformed doorman opened for him. I don't know who he was.
A total of 3,429 Medals of Honor have been authorized since the award was created in 1862. Army men have got the majority of them, though members of the other services have been honored, including one woman. As of April 26, this year, there are 110 living recipients of the Medal of Honor.
"The deed performed must have been one of personal bravery or self-sacrifice so conspicuous as to clearly distinguish the individual above his comrades and must have involved risk of life," according to chapters 3-6, Army Regulation 600-8-22 (Military Awards), dated 25 February 1995.
Petty Officer Robert R. Ingram, a Corpsman with Company C, First Battalion, Seventh Marines, against elements of a North Vietnam Aggressor (NVA) battalion in Quang Ngai Province, Republic of Vietnam, earned his Medal of Honor on March 28, 1966. This is what he did:
"Oblivious to the danger, Petty Officer Ingram crawled across the bullet spattered terrain to reach a downed Marine. As he administered aid, a bullet went through the palm of his hand. Calls for 'corpsman' echoed across the ridge. Bleeding, he edged across the fire swept landscape, collecting ammunition from the dead and administering aid to the wounded. "Receiving two more wounds before realizing the third wound was life threatening, he looked for a way off the face of the ridge, but again he heard the call for corpsman and again, he resolutely answered. Though severely wounded three times, he rendered aid to those incapable, until he finally reached the right flank of the platoon. While dressing the head wound of another corpsman, he sustained his fourth bullet wound. From 1600 hours until just prior to sunset, Petty Officer Ingram pushed, pulled, cajoled, and doctored his marines. Enduring the pain from his many wounds and disregarding the probability of his demise, Petty Officer Ingram's intrepid actions saved many lives that day."
What reminded me of this story was the news this week of the yachtsman who slipped off his sailboat near Cape Pogue this week, struggled to get back aboard, failed, but miraculously found salvation in the form of another yachtsman, a former Boston Bruin who happened by, if you can believe it. Not Medal of Honor stuff but in its way, miraculous nevertheless.
I've written before about Derek Lundy's book, Godforsaken Sea: Racing the World's Most Dangerous (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1998). Lundy, a Canadian lawyer turned journalist, wrote an account of the Vendee Globe single-handed, round the world, non-stop yacht race of 1996-1997. His understanding of what occurred during this four-month seaborne torture test in the wicked Southern Ocean is filled with detail, authoritative and sourced. Mr. Lundy restrains himself and allows the events and the competitors' descriptions of them (except in the case of lost lives, of course) tell the story. He does not speculate. This is the well-told sea story that Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, a perfect journalistic sham that infested the bestseller lists for months, was not.
Lundy's account includes a remarkable story of valor, not in a wartime setting of course, but in every other way consistent with valor's DNA. Just as Petty Officer Ingram heard the call for a corpsman "and again, he resolutely answered," so, too, did Pete Goss, a middle-aged, working class Englishman with a chips and beer attitude and a gift for persistence. Goss, the lone Englishman in the race, resolutely answered when he got a call from the Vendee race headquarters asking if he might go to the aid of a fellow racer whose yacht had begun, on Christmas day 1996, to sink beneath him. They were running before a hurricane. To help at all, Goss had to turn into the wind and beat back 160 miles in the most appalling weather one can imagine.
"People have often asked about the decision to go back," Goss told Lundy. "But it was easy. It's just what you do when someone's in trouble. I suppose it was a decision made by tradition of the sea. Having made it, and thinking about it, I had to come to terms with the consequences of it. You know, you sit down for thirty seconds and think about your family and everything. But at the end of the day, for me, it's a simple process: you either stand by your morals and principles, or you don't."
Ultimately, the Brit saved his French competitor and was decorated for valor by the governments of both countries. The call had come, he had submitted without reservation to the principle upon which it was based, and he answered. Courage was not about standing out. It was about submitting to a worthy idea.
"I would rather have that medal than be president of the United States," said President Harry S. Truman, expressing a sentiment which political leaders these days would certainly regard as vestigial nonsense, beyond even archaeological exploration.