Heroism for the Moment, Heroes Forever

Whatever one thinks about war and those who volunteer or are drafted to serve in them, war changes people forever. I've recently had the opportunity to meet a number of our Nation's Medal of Honor recipients. Nearly 100 of the 157 living recipients arrived in Indianapolis for the Memorial Day holidays, to be honored and to see the unveiling of a new memorial for them at the city's Military Park. Two of those 157 were born in Abingdon.

The new memorial is reported to be the only one in the nation to honor the 3,410 Congressional Medal of Honor recipients. The unveiling of the new memorial occurred on Friday, May 28, with fireworks, Navy jets flying overhead, and nearly 100 of America's Medal of Honor recipients looking on. Appropriately, the memorial is located adjacent to Indianapolis' Military Park. The park has its roots as a training and encampment area during the Civil War. The event was moving, for the recipients, for the public who attended, for various personal reasons that we'll never know, and for me, one of the volunteers and a veteran.

The memorial, itself, is stainless steel and 27 curved glass panels. The panels are segregated, representing the different periods during which the Medals of Honor were issued. The names, dates, and locations of the 3,410 Medal of Honor winners are listed on the panels, etched into the thick glass. At night, the glass panels are illuminated from below, giving them a light green glowing color, making the rememberance all the more powerful. The $2.5 million memorial was the brainchild of and was funded by IPALCO Enterprises, the parent company of Indianapolis Power & Light Company. Several hundred of its employees contributed their time and effort to help make the event successful.

The Medal of Honor was conceived during the carnage of the Civil War. In 1861, Congress approved its establishment and Lincoln signed it into law. There are three versions of the Medal-- reflecting whether it was awarded by the Army, Navy (Marines and Coast Guard, included), or Air Force. There have been 3,410 medal recipients, remarkably, 19 who have received it twice. Nearly half (1,520) of the medals that have been awarded were presented to those serving in the Civil War. In relatively recent history, there were 441 awarded during WWII, 131 in the Korean War, 240 during Vietnam, and 2 during Somalia in 1993.

There is something about us that needs heroes. If we didn't have them, we'd have to invent them. Unfortunately, too often, folks are finding the wrong image to shape as a hero. Here are 158 living heroes who rose from our ranks, performed tasks that had to be done under unimaginable conditions, and returned to our ranks. How many of us can name a Medal of Honor winner?

However, please don't think I have seen too many John Wayne movies. War brings out the worse in us as well. Anyone who lived through the Vietnam era can attest to the strife and turmoil that could be found on both sides of the Pacific. We can honor heroic deeds, without glorifying war.

Instead, I am impressed by the humanity of these folks. They know what war is about and what it does. They seemed a little surprised by the event and the attention. For some, it forced the reliving of a part of their personal history that they prefer not to revisit very often. No glory in war-- death, destruction, and that fleeting moment when some perform superhuman tasks to accomplish what must be done. If you want to find the strongest advocates for peace, look to the veterans. They know that war must be the last option.

My wife and I had dinner with Donald Rudolph, one of the recipients, and his wife, Helen. He is a gentle and quiet man. He is 78 years old and lives in a small town in northern Minnesota. Donald and Helen were married before he was sent off to fight in World War II. Donald could be anybody's father or grandfather, or neighbor. There was no apparent hint of his heroic past. He did not speak much of the specifics, nor would we ask. He did, in a humble, low key, and almost humorous way, summarize the events that brought him the nation's highest military recognition. Donald says he still doesn't understand why it was awarded to him.

He fought in the Philippines during WWII and received the Medal of Honor due to his heroic activities at Luzon, Philippines. He was a 2nd Lt. in the Army when he received the Medal of Honor. Despite his low-key presentation of the events, history records it slightly differently:

It was February 5, 1945. At the time, he was a T/Sgt and was an acting platoon leader. While administering first aid on the battlefield, he observed enemy fire issuing from a nearby culvert. Crawling to the culvert with rifle and grenades, he killed three of the enemy concealed there. He then worked his way across open terrain toward a line of enemy pillboxes that had immobilized his company. Nearing the first pillbox, he hurled a grenade through its embrasure and charged the position. With his bare hands he tore away the wood and tine covering, then dropped a grenade through the opening, killing the enemy gunners and destroying their machine gun. Ordering several riflemen to cover his further advance, he seized a pick mattock and made his way to the second pillbox. Piercing its top with the mattock, he dropped a grenade through the hole, fired several rounds from his rifle into it and smothered any surviving enemy by sealing the hole and the embrasure with earth. In quick succession attacked and neutralized six more pillboxes.

Later, when his platoon was attached by an enemy tank, he advanced under covering fire, climbed to the top of the tanks and dropped a white phosphorus grenade through the turret, destroying the crew. Through his outstanding heroism, superb courage and leadership-- and complete disregard for his own safety-- he cleared a path for an advance which culminated in one of the most decisive victories of the Philippine campaign.

Abingdon seems to have the highest per capita number of Medal of Honor recipients. Robert Hugo Dunlap, born October 19, 1920 in Abingdon, received the Medal of Honor for his gallantry during WWII on Iwo Jima, February 20-21, 1945. He was a Captain in the Marine Corps. He currently lives in Monmouth.

Abingdon also produced James B. Stockdale, born December 23, 1923. He received the honor for service during the Vietnam war for gallantry while a prisoner at Hoa Lo prison, Hanoi, North Vietnam, September 4, 1969. At that time, he was a Captain in the U.S. Navy. Of course, more recently he was also a candidate for Vice President of the United States. He currently resides in California.

Heroic acts come in many forms. Certainly those described above are dramatic even when viewed from the jaded eyes of too much movie and TV fiction. I believe that Donald Rudolph's heroism didn't stop in 1945. He lived on and is dealing with the aging process, declining health, and the loss of friends and loved ones. Based on my all-too-brief evening with him, I have no doubt that he also faces life's day to day challenges with courage and grace. His heroism continues.

We are not short of heroes, only short in recognizing them.

Internet Sites for More Information:

http://www.ipalco.com (ceremony and unveiling of memorial)

http://www2.army.mil/cmh~pg/moh1.htm (full text listings of medal of honor citations)

Uploaded to The Zephyr website June 18, 1999

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