In last week's Private Eye column, I shot myself in the foot. I wrote that in my life I had met "more Congressional Medal of Honor winners than Eagle Scouts." I mentioned that I only knew two Eagle Scouts, an old friend Scott Crump and my nephew, Nick Saltas. Letters and comments quickly arrived. Among the first was from my cousin Nick Malkogiannis. He reminded me that his late brother, George, was also an Eagle Scout. George never talked much. Who knew?
Thus, it became three Eagle Scouts I've known (if there are more, just tell me to shut up, and I'll buy you a drink). George was a Vietnam War veteran, Army artillery, and is among three of my cousins who saw combat there. Two older brothers also served in Vietnam, with a total of nearly four years in the war zone. Many friends served there—some during the same period that I was a lack-luster war protester at at the University of Utah, dressed as I was in flannel shirts and tattered Levi jeans. I often wore a red kerchief headband. I'm not much of a joiner, though, so I didn't march or sit in, but it is no secret I didn't support that war. Yet, over time, I became a bit of a Vietnam history buff, reading scores of books about the war (including an autographed No. 84 of 126 copies of Tim O'Brien's Speaking of Courage—thanks, City Weekly staff), seeing virtually every 'Nam movie made (try the under-the-radar but very good 84 Charlie MoPic), and scouring YouTube (mostly worthless).
So I was really bummed when two persons pointed out that the Medal of Honor is not "won." It is received. I knew that. Saving lives (paradoxically by sometimes taking other lives) or willingly sacrificing your own life (often by dying upon an exploding hand grenade) is not a contest to be won. For me to ascribe the word "winner" to the Medal of Honor wasn't a rookie error on my part. It was laze and complacency. My way bad.
Our online version of last week's story has been updated and now reads, "Congressional Medal of Honor recipients." But that hardly solves matters, as there is even some dispute—as was also pointed out to me—as to whether the Medal of Honor name itself has been compromised by placing the word "congressional" at the start of it. The Medal of Honor is presented in the name of Congress, but our president actually presents it. Somewhere along the line, it became nearly universally known as the Congressional Medal of Honor, even on the Medal of Honor website. I judged that one a toss-up and, for now it stands as written.
Alas, more headache: Lt. Gen. Hal Moore, whom I very briefly met in 2005 at a Veterans Day ceremony for soldiers who fought at the Ia Drang Valley 40 years prior in November 1965 (basis for the movie and book he co-authored, We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young), was accorded a Distinguished Service Cross, not the Medal of Honor. I'm damned near certain I saw and met two MOH recipients that day, but Moore was not one of them, despite my saying so last week.
So, the score is now Eagle Scouts 3, MOH recipients 2 (awaiting a fog-of-war replay in my mind of whom I actually did meet in 2005). I'm not a happy typist today. However, all of that banging my head reminded me of a war story I was told a number of years ago.
I was sharing a golf cart with a Vietnam combat veteran. We were jawing, and we came to a long, twisty, wooded, water-hole par 5. I go, "Hey, if the green was the enemy, how would you approach from tee to green?" He goes, "Yeah, I've done that before," and he detailed where he'd set up guys and how he'd move them if it were a jungle mission and not a golf shot. I was impressed.
Then he said, "Did I ever tell you they almost put me in for the Medal of Honor?" Whoa. "Yeah," he said, as he grabbed his driver, "I saved the lives of a full squad of men one day." He'd told me lots of things over time but little about his own actions. If you know where to look, he's even pictured in one of the books in my Vietnam book collection. He's real.
He began, "We were in three squads. I was a squad leader. We were in the shit. The VC knew we were there. We were going to attack, one squad at a time. My squad was first up. That's when I got sick, puking, diarrhea. So the second squad was sent out first. They all got hit. We went out next, but it was over fast. None of my guys got hit. I grabbed a cigarette from one my men, and he said, 'Thanks, LT. If you didn't get the shits right then, we'd be the dead ones. You saved us. You should get the Medal of Honor.' "
He was quietly looking out to the fairway. In another time, I might have guessed he was wearing the thousand-yard stare.
I never said a word, just grabbed my driver and hit the ball. Because it doesn't matter if that story were true or war myth or whatever. My buddy has other valor medals, and he can say whatever he wants about them, what it means to wear them, and how or why one comes by them. Or do not. Back in the 1960s, he was—as is sung in Les Misérables—only a boy. We do the damnedest things to our boys, don't we? I felt bad for not getting it right because all those boys do and have done what I have not.