Medal of Honor

Wed, 11/05/2008 - 9:00pm

Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Paul Smith serving in Iraq. Smith is the first soldier to receive a Medal of Honor in the Iraq War.


Sgt. Gary Coker Personal Collection

Medal of Honor, airing Wednesday, November 5 at 9 p.m. on WXXI-TV 21 (cable 11) and WXXI-HD (cable 1011 and DT 21.1), presents powerful stories of those who have received the nation’s highest military honor, asking fundamental questions about the nature of the human spirit and what it means to have the courage of a hero. What makes a person face almost certain death in order to save the lives of others? What gives a person the strength to endure unspeakable acts of torture without losing the will to carry on? Is every person, if put into the same situation, capable of such virtues? Can everyone be a hero?

The film traces the history of the Medal of Honor, from a profile of Sgt. Paul Smith, the first soldier to receive a Medal of Honor in the Iraq War, back to its creation during the Civil War. Among those profiled in the film are a Holocaust survivor who single-handedly defended a hill from an advancing enemy force in the Korean War; an injured Navy SEAL who saved the lives of two comrades by swimming for two hours to bring them to safety; and a Marine at Iwo Jima, who alone silenced seven Japanese bunkers with a flamethrower to clear a path for his demoralized company.

Through intimate accounts of fear and the realities of surviving war, movingly told by living recipients, Medal of Honor explores these extraordinary, almost inconceivable, acts of heroism for which the medal has been awarded.

“The Medal of Honor has fascinated me for a long time,” said Roger Sherman, the film’s producer and director. “I’ve always been aware of it as a profound, solemn symbol of military heroism, but like most people, I’ve never fully understood its history, how it’s bestowed, or even why certain people receive it and others don’t. I wanted to dig into that history, and in the process pay tribute to the valor the medal represents and explore the questions that awarding such a medal raises. On the one hand, the medal seeks to define heroism, but how does one do that? And while most of us would certainly agree that anyone wearing a Medal of Honor is a hero, every recipient I’ve met would categorically deny their heroism.”

Medal of Honor reveals the story of how the medal was introduced during the Civil War to boost morale and to attract soldiers to re-enlist and not to desert. It was frequently awarded to flag bearers. These unarmed soldiers “led the charge,” as historian Allen Mikaelian explains in the film. The flag indicated to officers where their troops were. In 1863, a soldier named William Harvey Carney dropped his rifle and picked up the stars and stripes when the flag bearer in his company was shot. He was wounded in the battle, but never dropped the flag. For his valor, Carney became the first African American to receive the Medal of Honor.

Only one Medal of Honor has ever been awarded to a woman: Mary Edwards Walker, a Civil War doctor captured and imprisoned as a spy by the Confederates. Her medal was revoked post-war, when the medal criteria were tightened: It could be awarded only to active duty soldiers in battle. Walker, however, refused to give it back.

To date, only 3,473 Medals of Honor have been awarded. Has it become a medal one has to die to receive? Since Vietnam, just seven have been awarded, all posthumously — two for service in Somalia, one for service in Afghanistan, and four for service in Iraq. Three of those were for falling on a hand grenade. Indeed, the classic reason cited for receiving a Medal of Honor is falling on a grenade to save the lives of fellow soldiers.

In addition to Walker and Carney, other Medal of Honor recipients profiled in the film include Sgt. Alvin York (portrayed by Gary Cooper in the 1941 film Sergeant York), who was torn between his religious beliefs against killing and his duty to serve his country in war, and Smedley D. Butler, one of only 17 people to receive the Medal of Honor twice, for his service in Vera Cruz, Mexico, and for leading an attack on Haiti. Gen. Butler served in every conflict from 1898 through World War I, but he eventually became one of the most outspoken critics of the U.S. military’s interventionist policies. He attempted to return the medal awarded for his service in Vera Cruz, but superiors ordered him to keep it.

No Medals of Honor were awarded to African Americans or Asian Americans who served in the two world wars. In the 1990s, the military, after pressure from Congress, began reviewing its records and eventually awarded Medals of Honor to eight African Americans and 22 Asian Americans.

In 2001, the military began reviewing battle records of Jewish veterans. Among them was Tibor “Ted” Rubin, who is interviewed in Medal of Honor. A Hungarian immigrant who had been liberated from the Mauthausen concentration camp by U.S. forces as a boy, Rubin immigrated to the United States and joined the Army as a way to pay back the country that had saved him. He served in the Korean War, where his anti-Semitic sergeant “volunteered” him to defend a hill against the North Koreans all by himself. Stashing hand grenades and rifles in fox holes, he jumped from one to another to create the illusion that he was a whole company. Alone, Rubin held the hill for 24 hours, slowing the North Korean advance. Later, he was captured and held as a POW. In prison, he saved the lives of more than 40 fellow soldiers, using survival skills he had learned at Mauthausen.

Another immigrant Medal of Honor recipient profiled is Alfred Rascon, whose family sneaked across the border from Mexico when he was an infant. Rascon is one of only 75 medical personnel to receive the medal. He explains in the film that a medic in combat is faced with godlike decisions: “You can’t take care of five or six people at the same time. At that time you have to make a decision that literally is going to come back and bear on your life for a very long time.” He was awarded the Medal of Honor for one of the many firefights his squad experienced. He pulled men off the battlefield, threw himself over a soldier to protect him from hand grenades, was hit by shrapnel, and was shot. The paperwork recommending him for a medal went missing for 34 years. He finally received his Medal of Honor in February 2000.

While all the recipients interviewed in Medal of Honor respect the sacrifice and dedication to duty the Medal of Honor represents, not all of them respect the wars in which they were earned. Charles Liteky is one of only five Army chaplains to receive a Medal of Honor, awarded for risking his life to save others in a horrific battle in Vietnam. He is also the only person to return the medal. After years of anguish about his involvement in Vietnam, in 1986 he left his medal at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, as a protest against U.S. military action against impoverished nations, especially in Latin America. He explains, “I’m not a pacifist. People have a right to defend themselves; nations have a right to defend themselves, but the means which we use is another question.”

Other Medal of Honor recipients interviewed in the film include John W. Finn (World War II), Walter D. Ehlers (World War II), Hershel “Woody” W. Williams (World War II), Hiroshi H. Miyamura (Korea), Ronald E. Rosser (Korea), George “Bud” Day (Vietnam), Bob Kerrey (Vietnam), and Mike E. Thornton (Vietnam). The film also profiles Sgt. Paul Smith, who received the medal posthumously for an action in Iraq. Smith’s story is told by three soldiers who fought with him that day: Sgt. Michael C. Seaman, Sgt. Daniel Medrano and Sgt. Harry Delauter.