'Scared Out of My Wits'

At least as far back as 1900, English-language dictionaries defined heroism as “distinguished bravery or gallantry; noble disregard of danger; and intrepidity.”

But over the past 50-100 years, the word has been diluted in its original meaning — like everything else — for the sake of fairness. Everybody seems to want to be a hero. So by today’s standards of personal entitlement, almost anybody doing “good work” may be considered a “hero”: Sports figures, actors, community organizers, volunteers, you name it. “Star” and “hero” are practically interchangeable attributes for almost anyone today with a measure of talent, ambition, the right connections and perhaps some cash.

There are, however, heroes and heroines still cut from the old cloth: Men and women who transcend physical courage at a level surpassing the bravest of the brave.

I spoke over the phone or had lunch with five of them last week — Marine Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston, Army Col. Charles P. Murray Jr., Navy SEAL Lt. Michael E. Thornton, Marine Chief Warrant Officer 4 Hershel Woodrow “Woody” Williams, and Army Sgt. John F. Baker Jr. — each of whom has received the nation’s highest award for heroism, the Medal of Honor (MoH).

Ironically, as “heroism” in the 21st century has come to include those whose works may be less-than heroic, the standards for the Medal of Honor have stiffened (since World War I) to the point that it’s almost impossible to survive the action for which you are nominated for the MoH. And many whose deeds are perceived to be worthy of the MoH either don’t meet the Medal’s exacting standards or there aren’t any surviving witnesses to recommend the MoH.

Consequently, there currently are only 99 living recipients of the MoH. The average age is 75. The oldest, Navy Lt. John William Finn, is 99. The youngest, Army Col. Gordon Ray Roberts, is 58. And all recipients since the Vietnam War have earned the decoration posthumously.

So what does it take to receive the MoH? Recipients will tell you they were just doing what they have to do in the particular circumstances they found themselves. But there is so much more.

To receive the Medal (no one wins it) the recipient’s gallantry must be distinguished beyond that warranting a lesser — though also lofty — decoration for valor, like the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross, or the Air Force Cross. There must be extreme risk to the recipient’s life. And the performance of the recipient must be so bold, so courageous, so utterly self-sacrificial that the deed is deemed something no one could ever be expected to do in any one lifetime.

One such man is retired Marine CWO4 Woody Williams, who — as a corporal armed with a flamethrower during the Battle of Iwo Jima — battled Japanese diehards (constantly shooting at him, some rushing him with fixed bayonets) for a four-hour period on Feb. 23, 1945, burning out seven enemy machinegun bunkers with his flamethrower, tossing satchel charges, and saving the lives of untold numbers of Marines (one of whom perhaps was Marine Capt. Harold H. Babbin — father of HUMAN EVENTS editor Jed Babbin — who was believed to be operating in the area near Williams).

“I was scared out of my wits,” says Williams in an interview for PBS’s “Medal of Honor,” which premiered last week. But, he adds, his training kicked in, he knew he had a responsibility to his fellow Marines and sailors, and he did what needed to be done.

“It boils down to training and brotherhood,” Williams tells HUMAN EVENTS. “You are your brother’s keeper, and that brotherhood develops in boot camp.”

Therein lies two of the common threads found running through each of the recipients: Training to the point of instinctive behavior and a strong sense of responsibility.

“Unless the mortars are landing around you and you are hearing the bullets snapping by you, there is just no way you can comprehend the stress and fear associated with combat,” says Williams. “But you must control the fear and allow your training to take over. Then you just sort of go on automatic pilot.”

Retired Army Col. Charles Murray — who as a 1st Lt. received the Medal for almost single-handedly attacking and defeating a 200-man German infantry force near Kaysersberg, France on Dec. 16, 1944 — agrees.

“You really don’t have time to think about your own self-preservation,” Murray tells HUMAN EVENTS. ”You’re just so focused on the enemy and trying to keep your own people alive.”

The two uncommon threads are the diversity of the recipients — more than 3,400 men since the Civil War and one woman (a Civil War surgeon) of all races, religions, socio-economic backgrounds, and service branches — as well as the acceptance or non-acceptance of one’s fate during the action for which the Medal is earned.

Many recipients of both the MoH and the service crosses have said they had come to grips with the fact that they probably would not survive the fighting, so they were no longer burdened with thoughts of saving themselves.

Williams experienced something different.

“Even though there was always sacrifice above self, I never accepted that I was going to die,” says Williams, who today serves as chaplain emeritus of the Medal of Honor Society. “I always focused on home, because I wanted to go home. I had somebody there who loved me, and home was my goal. If doubt ever sets in, you’re whipped.”

Williams refers to the 2004 Battle of Fallujah, Iraq as an example.

“Marines are the best-trained to do the very thing they did at Fallujah,” he says. “A lesser-trained, lesser-committed, fatalistic force would have met with catastrophe in that battle.”

During a luncheon last week in Columbia, S.C. with three recipients and several organizers of the 2010 Medal of Honor Convention (to be held in Charleston), we enjoyed a private screening of “Medal of Honor” hours before the nationwide premiere on PBS. There — as I observed the occasional fought-back tear and a few chuckles — another common thread emerged: the recipients’ common humility.

As I’ve said before, recipients of the Medal of Honor consider themselves to be ordinary men, and it’s not some public pretense of ordinariness. They truly believe it. And having known and served with similarly wired men in peace and in war, I’ve concluded that their ordinariness is one of the genetically-infused-into-them ingredients — among other things — that pre-disposes them to great feats of heroism in the first place.