The Weight of Medals
Note to readers: The following Roger Simon column was first published in May 1996.
My father's medals arrived in the mail one day many years after World War II had ended. I could not have been more than 4 or 5, but I remember him taking them out of the box and showing them to me: the heavy pieces of metal hanging from the dark silky ribbons and the little multistriped bars. There must have been a half-dozen or more.
The only one I still remember is the Purple Heart because my father pointed out that George Washington, the father of our country, had his image on it.
I do not know if my father got his medals for "valor" or not. I know he was a combat veteran in the Pacific. But when the medals arrived, he did a very unusual thing. It was clear to me that these medals were a very special adult thing and that I was privileged merely to be allowed to touch them. And, as soon as my father put the medals back in their box, I expected the usual lecture about how I was never to touch them without his permission.
Instead, my father looked at the box for a moment and then put it in my lap.
"Here," he said. "For you."
It is a sign of how stunned I was that I still remember everything about that moment. How we were sitting on my father and mother's bed and how, when my father set the box down, the medals inside made a heavy clinking sound.
Where they are today, I cannot tell you. I am not proud of that, but I do know with certainty that my father, who died a few years ago, would not have minded a bit.
I know this because when I learned that you got the Purple Heart for being wounded, I pestered my father for the story of how he got it. And he told a hilarious tale of unloading a cargo ship in Alaska and having a side of beef fall on him. He was recovering in the hospital, he said, when an officer came down the aisle handing out Purple Hearts and he got one.
The story never failed to make me laugh, and it was only many years later that it occurred to me that it might not be true. That he might have gotten the Purple Heart in quite a different way. It also occurred to me that none of the tales he told me of his years in the war ever had anything to do with combat or killing people or the peril of being killed. They were all wild tales of meeting up with Kodiak bears (at one point, my father was stationed in the Aleutian Islands) or how he and his pals dealt with their foolish officers.
In one sense, my father took his years of service seriously — he was a member both of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Jewish War Veterans, and he went to meetings — but he never talked seriously about his war years to me. He never told war stories. He never told me about the danger or the horror.
And when, years after the war was over, the Army sent him his medals, he took one look at them, closed the box and gave them away. He did not, I think, want to be reminded of what they were really for.
I am thinking about all this because of the terrible death of Adm. Jeremy "Mike" Boorda, the Navy's highest ranking officer, who killed himself when questions were raised about his medals.
Newsweek magazine was investigating whether he deserved to wear two "valor" decorations normally associated with combat duty. Boorda had served on ships off the coast of Vietnam during that war, and those ships were engaged in combat operations, but Boorda had never personally come under fire or been in combat.
It now appears that Boorda may have had a perfect right to wear the two bronze "V" pins, but he killed himself because he feared that the controversy might damage his own reputation and that of the Navy.
You can't work backward from irrational acts like suicide and find rational reasons for them, so I don't think it is possible to blame Newsweek for Boorda's death. He was obviously a troubled man, working under enormous pressures.
But I have to wonder if the fact that Boorda never was in combat led him to place a higher value on it than a combat veteran would have. It reminds me a little of men like Ross Perot and Bob Dornan, who are always going on and on about the glories of the battlefield, having never been there themselves.
My father was on the battlefield and found no glory there, found nothing there he wanted to tell his son about.
A few years ago, while researching a column, I learned from a Pentagon official that it is relatively easy to find out what medals a person has earned. He told me that if, for instance, I wanted to find out exactly what medals my father had received and exactly what he had received them for, he could get the information for me.
No, I told him, don't bother. It made no difference. Not to my father and not to me.
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