In my career as a freelance writer, I have had the opportunity to cover a number of Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day events and speak to many decorated war heroes.
What always amazes me is how many of them really don’t care about the military awards and recognitions they receive, but really would just like the opportunity to talk to their fallen friends one last time.
I had the pleasure of interviewing a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient who served in World War II. He was the most mild-mannered, unassuming man I had probably ever met in my entire life, and I eventually got around to asking him about military awards and recognitions besides the CMH, as he had many of them.
At that moment, he became very somber and his eyes welled with tears. He talked about what it was like serving with some of the best friends that he ever had, and how difficult it was to return home without some of them. He told me that he would give back every distinction he ever received if it meant that he could have one more day with them.
Another man who had received numerous military awards and recognitions served in Vietnam and had three Purple Hearts. He was in a wheelchair but never complained about it once during our entire time together. He too had a number of other distinctions for bravery and valor, and I remarked on the case that his wife had brought in to show off.
He said that all of the medals and honors that he received were for those men that served in Vietnam and never came back. The man, who had a hard and chiseled look about him, actually could not control his emotions and broke down crying after he told me that. I could not imagine having gone through what he did, and I am glad that I have been so lucky.
On one other occasion, I interviewed a man who had served in World War II and had been awarded the Navy Cross. He had seen some bad things in his time as well, but was remarkably well-adjusted for what he had been through. I asked him what he remembered most about his time in the war, and he told me that it wasn’t the military awards and recognitions, but the day he watched his best friend die in battle.
Through these experiences, I realized that receiving military awards and recognitions means that you have probably seen some pretty severe combat, and probably lost some friends along the way.
We as Americans hold these people in the highest esteem, and rightfully so, but for most the men with whom I spoke, they would trade in every award they’ve ever received to be able to speak to their fallen friends once more.