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Medal of Honor
Profiles in heroism
By Steven Martinovich
Although statistically speaking the Congressional Medal of Honor is not the rarest military award that has been earned by soldiers - that distinction goes to Britain's Victoria Cross - it has nonetheless gained a deserved reputation as the ultimate symbol of courage in battle. Since its inception in 1861, fewer than 3 500 soldiers have been awarded for, as Allen Mikaelian writes, distinguishing themselves "conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty."
Mikaelian's Medal of Honor: Profiles of America's Military Heroes from the Civil War to the Present is a spotlight on 11 of those awarded the Medal of Honor in battles stretching from the Civil War to Vietnam. Mikaelian's accounts, along with 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace's commentaries, presents a compelling look at what it takes to earn a medal that is presented personally by the president of the United States. Medal of Honor also takes the time to find out how it changed the lives of its recipients and those around them.
For a medal with the reputation that it has, the Medal of Honor had pedestrian birth. Gideon Wells, Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy, devised a medal he hoped would inspire an unruly group of seaman to duty. In its early days, the Medal of Honor was easily obtained and it wasn't until the late 19th century that a drive was launched to tighten the requirements in order to turn it into an award for the elite.
Mikaelian begins with the story of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman to have earned the medal, a controversial Civil War doctor and feminist known equally for her medical skills and propensity to wear men's clothing. Walker's medal was revoked near the end of her life, an ignominious fate for a woman who literally became a side show attraction in her remaining days. From there he moves to the story of Leopold Karpeles, a flag bearer at the slaughter known as Battle of the Wilderness; Edouard Victor Michael Izac, a World War I prisoner of the Germans who gathered intelligence and escaped to make it back to friendly forces at the end of the war; Samuel Woodfill, who proved that Sgt. Alvin York wasn't the only expert shot capable of taking out multiple German positions in a single action during the First World War.
The other profiles include the story of Japanese-American Hiroshi Miyamura, who during the Korean War killed as many as 60 enemy soldiers during a chaotic retreat and the sad tale of Dwight Johnson, who single-handedly fought off a battalion of North Vietnamese soldiers after the tank platoon he was serving in was all but destroyed, only to die after the Vietnam War during a failed armed robbery.
Sadly, the Medal of Honor seemed to be a double-edged sword for some of its recipients. After the celebration of a grateful nation dissipates, many of those honored lived difficult lives, as Johnson's story so aptly illustrates. Unlike York, Woodfill fell into obscurity and was plagued by financial problems the rest of his life. World War II veteran Maynard Smith was implicated in a fraudulent scheme and several hoaxes before recovering financially in the 1970s.
It's probably impossible to understand what goes through a person's mind once they embark on a course that will earn them the Congressional Medal of Honor. For some it seemed to be an instinctual reaction to danger while for others it was a determined decision to act. Whether a heroic charge against machine gun emplacements or saving the lives of comrades, the stories and motivations are as varied as the people who earned the award. Mikaelian's collection of profiles is a fascinating and inspiring look eleven Americans who served their nations and in the process became the standard by which heroism is defined.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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