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They still have it

By Dr. Michael R. Bowen
web posted October 8, 2001

Around the walls of the quarterdeck of every Naval Hospital (you'd call it a lobby, but the Navy still clings to its salty terminology), mounted at eye level, are copies of the citations for the Medal of Honor awarded to United States Navy medical personnel, almost exclusively Hospital Corpsmen (in other services they would be called medics). Whenever I was posted to a new Naval Hospital, I made a point of doing a circuit of the quarterdeck, reading each one. You cannot do this without developing speech problems and blurry vision before you are half done.

Most citations feature a photograph above the text describing the actions which merited the Medal. If it's a portrait of the Corpsman, he died in the action described below his picture. In all too few citations, the photograph shows the Corpsman lowering his head as the President drapes the medal with its blue ribbon and white stars about his neck. He is usually in his Service Dress Blue uniform, commonly known as the "crackerjack", and usually only partially in it because of twisted limbs, splints, and bandages.

The best way, especially today, to view these citations is to read the text first, then look at the picture. This is because, after reading the heroic things these men did, you will be shocked to look at the photograph and see the face of a boy.

Citation after citation, the story almost never varies: the shooting starts, men are hit, and everyone hits the dirt. The air is filled with flying metal; to stand up is to die. But one man does stand up, as the cries for "Corpsman" go up. He runs through the lead and shrapnel, dressing wounds and giving plasma, jobs he can usually only do by standing or kneeling fully exposed. He is hit, but drags the Marine to safety, and goes out again. Often his patient is hit yet again as the Corpsman ministers to him; the Corpsman then turns to place himself between the Marine and the enemy guns, shielding the wounded man with his own body, and usually getting hit again himself. He brings that man to safety, and goes out again............ and keeps doing it until he dies.

A Navy Hospital Corpsman serving with the Marines in 1950
A Navy Hospital Corpsman serving with the Marines in 1950

Then you look at the face: the face of a teenager, complete with sunny smile, pimples, and crooked teeth, the face of an ordinary kid. In that face there is no clue of the heroism inside. Nothing to tell you that this young man had it in him to do the most courageous thing a man can do in battle: to stand up and walk into the bullets when you can't even shoot back. To make yourself a shield to stop bullets meant for others. To take your own life, just as valuable as anyone else's, and trade it for the life of your comrades.

Although they sometimes carried weapons, these young men were no more enthusiastic for war than their counterparts who fill today's high schools and colleges. They were plucked by history out of their ordinary lives on farms, in cities, and suburbs, and given a job to do. They, like today's kids, were probably largely ignorant of the world politics which swept them onto the battlefield. They wanted to come home more than anything in the world, but so did everyone else, so they stuck to their posts.

We've been hearing quite a bit about how today's young men think that going to war is always wrong. How their teachers and professors try to fill their heads with the belief that America deserved to be attacked, and that our cause is not just. We look at the body piercings, the tattoos, the bizarre hair dye; we hear the strange music and stranger lingo. We begin to think that they could never face the things their fathers and grandfathers did.

When that happens, we need only take a tour of the quarterdeck. Read the citations first, then look at the faces. World War II, Korea, Vietnam: to their parents, the jitterbug, Elvis, and the Beatles were utterly strange, yet nothing in all that predicted what they did in battle. American boys, raised in freedom, showed that they had what it takes.

I believe they still have it.

Dr. Michael Bowen, a former Naval officer, has a private medical practice in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. He writes the weekly column "The Basics" for www.americasvoices.org, a conservative political opinion and educational web site. His columns also appear in other popular Internet sites. E-mail him at mbowen@americasvoices.org.

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