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Heroes 

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At 6:30 AM on July 12, at exactly the time they are supposed to, a line of men files out of the Holiday Inn across from the Merchandise Mart and into two borrowed CTA buses. They are wearing polo shirts and T-shirts and khaki pants and jeans and caps and windbreakers. Some have potbellies, and some have hearing aids. One is paralyzed and in a wheelchair, two are missing arms, and at least a few are filled with shrapnel. Some are in their 40s, some are in their 70s. Some have lost their jobs, some have lost their minds.

Fifty-one of the 210 living recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation's highest and most revered military honor for bravery, are guests for the weekend of the Illinois Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program. The buses will whisk them up to the harbor at Great Lakes naval base for a day of salmon fishing. CMOH recipients travel around the country as guests of a lot of people, including the president. In the world of politics and the military, these guys are the Madonnas and the Paul McCartneys. What they've done to protect their country and their compatriots on the battlefield in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam is superhuman and crazy--basically, they should all be dead. They'll tell you that. And so will their fans.

Beryl Newman, originally from Baraboo, Wisconsin, hands his medal to me as the bus enters the expressway. "I usually keep it in a case, but I bring it out for things like this," he says. Attached to a worn blue ribbon is a five-point star with an eagle in the middle, surrounded by a small wreath and inscribed with the word "valor." On May 26, 1944, Newman stood upright by himself in the face of enemy machine guns near Cisterna, Italy, and killed two Germans, wounded two, and took eleven prisoner, along with three machine guns. But later in the war he suffered an injury that cost him his memory and relegated him to common labor--oyster collecting and shucking in Virginia--for the rest of his life.

"We get a whole lot of notoriety," he says. "We go places we normally wouldn't go. Twenty years ago we still had a guy from the [Boxer] rebellion, and we still have one from World War I. Everyone appreciates it. All these guys have done amazing things--they're lucky to be alive. We're a scarce article. There's only 210 of us in a country of 242 million. You won't see one of us very often."

Newman hands five dollars to Don Ballard, who is collecting for a pool that will go to whoever catches the biggest fish. On May 16, 1968, Ballard threw himself on a lethal explosive device in Quang Tri province in Vietnam to protect his comrades from a deadly blast, though it failed to explode. Ballard is wearing a T-shirt that says "low-impact aerobics" and has a picture of a person lying on a couch.

As the buses enter the Great Lakes base, some sailors who spot them salute. "They must have recognized who we are," says Newman. "Even the president of the United States salutes us. Truman said he'd rather have this military honor than be president."

"When they asked me if I'd donate the boat for the day, I said, 'Yeah. Are you kidding? Sure,'" says Fred Ortegel, one of several pleasure- or charter-boat captains donating a Friday of fishing to the CMOH recipients. The captains--a degenerate-looking bunch, with tattoos, bloodshot eyes, scraggly clothing, and hair and skin beaten by Lake Michigan wind--are holding over their heads big white cards with boat names on them like Snow Job and Linda K so their passengers can find them.

Richard Sorenson hops onto Ortegel's boat, the Tootsie-O. I follow him, and Ortegel repeats the sailors' superstition against having women on board, joking that now there's a good chance that everyone will have bad luck. On February 2, 1944, Sorenson hurled himself on a Japanese grenade in a shell hole in the Marshall Islands in order to save his comrades' lives. "They took out eight or nine pieces of shrapnel [at the time]," he says. "But there are still three pieces left in my arm and bladder. It's too risky to take those out--they're near nerves and stuff."

Sorenson wears a polo shirt that says "Kwajalein," the atoll where his injury occurred. The shirt commemorates a Fourth of July celebration the week before in the islands, where Sorenson was the guest of honor. "They do missile tests there now," he says. "I hardly recognized it--it was overgrown with coconut trees and other foliage. I was honored along with three others who had been awarded at the time posthumously. Most medals are awarded posthumously because what they do to receive the medal usually kills them."

Ortegel--a carpet layer, pleasure boater, and fisherman--describes the latest equipment his cabin cruiser has: computerized fishing lines that change depth automatically every 60 seconds, and computerized fish-finding gear with screens that show where they're feeding as well as where previous good spots were. And every lure ever invented. "I have a screen which shows different colors depending on the kind of bottom the fish are swimming above," says Frank Nelson, a business-form salesman and Ortegel's friend. "Rock, sand, mud."

Sorenson, a retired regional-office director for the VA in Reno, looks quizzically at the two as they explain everything to him and David Ewton, one of the Vietnam vets hosting the CMOH recipients--a Marist High School graduate and current resident of a men's shelter in Harvey.

"All these high-tech devices I have to catch fish--it still all comes down to luck," says Ortegel.

For the next five hours the captains put on what amounts to a major military operation against unsuspecting salmon and trout. They troll in 60 to 90 feet of water, keeping in touch with each other by radio. They chatter among themselves, telling each other where they are, the depth they're in, the number of fish caught so far, and the estimated weight of each catch.

When the computerized fishing lines look and sound a certain way, Ortegel and Nelson know they've got a bite. Then they patronizingly hand the line to Sorenson or Ewton. They all poke fun at each other as they dispute the merits of the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Marines.

In the background voices are still coming from the radio. "I've got one in the box. I've got four in the box. The last one we got was 70 feet off the down riggers. I'm at 83 feet and no bites."

Sorenson is reeling in a line, standing between Nelson and Ortegel, who are giving directions. Sorenson's reeling begins to take on a Hemingwayesque character. He moves farther and farther back trying to pull the fish in until he is standing in the boat's cabin.

"What the hell are you doing?" yells Ortegel.

Finally the lure reaches the surface, and Nelson stands by with a big net ready for the fish. Ortegel has pliers ready to detach the hook. But the hook is empty.

"I did all that goddamn work and he isn't there!" shouts Sorenson. Ortegel and Nelson are hurt and embarrassed too. But then Ewton hauls in a 17-pound king salmon, and that takes their minds off Sorenson's disappointment.

Over the radio one boat announces that it has engine trouble and has to be towed in. Another is dealing with a case of acute seasickness and says he needs to take the passenger to a rescue center immediately. A female captain says, "I've gotta go! I've got one on the line and I gotta help!"

"Oh, the lying bitch," says Ortegel jokingly. "That's what they all say--'Gotta go. Got one on the line.'"

Then Nelson shouts, "Fish on! Fish on! Fish on! It's a screamer. It's a freight train. Biggest one all year--I swear to God. Turn the boat around.

"Play this guy easy," he says as he carefully hands the line to Sorenson.

"If you lose this one I'm going to be pissed," Ortegel says sarcastically to Sorenson.

"Keep your eye on the top of the rod," advises Nelson.

"I'll cut open the belly," says Ortegel, "and we'll eat some eggs."

Then Nelson says to Ortegel, "Easy Fred. Slow down, slow down."

The boat is lurching and appears to have engine trouble, and Fred says, "I gotta get the boat running." He checks his emergency gas supply, which he claims can keep the boat going for two days.

Sorenson finally reels in a 20-pound Chinook, and Nelson nets it. He detaches the hook and throws the fish in the cooler along with some smaller fish he caught while Sorenson fought with the big one.

During all of this I have thrown up eight times--due to choppy water and exhaust fumes. Each time, Ortegel has emptied the bucket. "I've got kids," he says. "I've got grandkids. Nothing bothers me. I change shitty diapers."

Sorenson is nice to me. And sympathetic. "Don't worry. This is nothing to be ashamed of. It can happen to anyone." I am puking and being reassured by a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Back on shore, cooler after cooler of fish is brought to a weighing and cleaning station, and the biggest ones are weighed for the contest. For a while Sorenson appears to have a good chance of winning. Unfortunately, someone caught a slightly bigger fish.

Most of the CMOH recipients donate their catch to the base--they still have a weekend in a hotel and a lot of parties and receptions ahead of them. But Ewton has his cut into steaks and packed in plastic.

Sorenson talks for a moment about his ordeal in World War II. "When I was in the hospital, I had a father-son talk with a captain who had been decorated in World War I. And he told me, 'You'll be put on a pedestal for a short period and that'll be it.' But it's changed all of our lives. We attend all the inaugurals. We're guests of presidents. We travel."

Kids of the Vietnam vets and the CMOH honorees are now running around the dock with T-shirts that say things like "Born in the USA--Forever Proud" and "Red, White and Blue--These Colors Don't Run."

Sammy Davis wins the cash for the biggest fish. Everyone claps. On November 18, 1967, Davis was a cannoneer west of Cai Lay in Vietnam. He fired a burning howitzer at the Vietcong, and was knocked down violently by the recoil and severely injured. Yet he succeeded in rescuing himself and three other people.

George Lang, the man in the wheelchair, looks on as Sammy claims his money. Lang was injured on February 22, 1969 ("I've now spent exactly half my life paralyzed"), in Kien Hoa province in Vietnam; at great personal sacrifice, he gallantly continued directing his men and then protested his own evacuation. Lang does historical research on the medal winners by computer from his home on Long Island, where he lives with his wife, her daughter, whom he adopted, and her husband and child.

Lang explains that the honor was first given to Civil War fighters by President Lincoln. Although some 3,400 have been awarded since, many of the original medals were revoked because the early standards were too low. Lincoln had used the medal to recruit, and whole outfits were honored with it (the only woman ever to receive the medal was a Civil War doctor; her medal was revoked but later reinstated).

"There's about 450 recipients 'lost in history,'" says Lang. He says if he could get to certain military files that have so far been off-limits to him, he could get that number down to about 60. He says he should be able to find out who these mystery men really were, where they are buried, and so forth. "A lot of recipients had entered the Army with aliases or the wrong address," he says. "They might not have wanted certain family members to receive 'the telegram'--but then they had to change their names back to get their pensions."

He goes on to say that most CMOH recipients aren't rich. But, he says, "The honor helps them travel and get around and see a little more of the country than they would otherwise."

Some other recipients come up to chat with Lang. Roger Donlon was the first CMOH recipient of the Vietnam era. Though wounded, he rescued other wounded men from a gun pit near Nam Dong on July 6, 1964, and then against all odds set up mortar positions and managed to protect his comrades. Matt Urban risked his life over and over--and once even went AWOL from a hospital to retake command of his company--from June through September 1944 in France and Belgium. Urban's CMOH paperwork was lost for more than 30 years; it was not until President Carter was in office that his paperwork was located and he was given his medal.

Urban says to the other men that someone's Dramamine didn't work and that he needs to find someone to take the person back to the Holiday Inn downtown. Lang offers to help, explaining that he needs to go back because he knows he has a pressure sore from sitting in his wheelchair--even though he can't feel it. He says he needs to take his weight off it and dress it.

En route to the reception at the VFW post in Highwood, David Dolby, whose speech is ever so slightly slurred, takes out a bright cheese-colored business card. He hands me one that he has inscribed to me. The card, which has a picture of the medal on it, says, "That others might live in freedom." On the back of the card is a printed list headed "Tours in Nam!" Underneath are the five tours of duty he did from 1965 to 1971. President Johnson refused to let him go on a third tour, but Nixon said he could go.

Dolby also wears a CMOH watch that was given to the recipients a few years ago by Seiko. He is balding and wears a black T-shirt; his suspenders stretch across his belly.

As far as the military bureaucracy is concerned, Dolby is 100 percent incapacitated by posttraumatic delayed stress syndrome. He says he's usually up all night with recurring fears and anxieties. "I was scared all the time in Vietnam, but I didn't feel like I was going to die. I said my rosary beads three times a day, with every meal." He received his medal for single-handedly killing three enemy machine gunners and for four hours of "unsurpassed valor" during intense combat in which he was a "source of inspiration to his entire company," according to a book of biographies of the men attending the weekend's events.

Dolby says he doesn't think any medals will be given out for the gulf war. "As far as I know, there's been no nominations yet--and I would know if there were. There would have been some by now if there were going to be any." He explains that any feat deserving the medal needs two eyewitnesses, and the evidence must be incontestable. Regulations permit no doubt or error. The recipient must have risked his life, and his deed must have been such that if he hadn't done it, no one could possibly have criticized him.

Dolby married a Vietnamese woman in 1971, and lived with her in Pennsylvania until she died four years ago in a car accident. She was unable to have children, and she worked as a seamstress in an American-flag factory near their home. Although Dolby never met her family in Vietnam, he and his parents send them $200 every two or three months. "You can live well on $100 a year there now," he says. He is on this trip with his high school sweetheart.

Lewis Millett chats with the CTA bus driver about the driver's military service. Then Millett, a grandfatherly type who could be in a commercial for oatmeal cookies, tells some of his own war stories in his strong Maine accent.

Millett says he fought in Africa in 1940, before the U.S. officially entered World War II. But he says he wanted to fight the Nazis in Europe, and so he went AWOL and joined the Canadian army, thinking he'd be able to fight them head-on. When the U.S. entered the war, he went back to his old unit and was court-martialed and briefly punished as a deserter.

He received his medal for leading a company in Korea into the last bayonet charge in U.S. military history, clubbing and bayoneting enemy soldiers while shouting encouragement to his men. "People who are arrogant are very stupid," he says. "I didn't know you weren't supposed to die."

A pig has been roasted by a guy from Hawaii, and salads and bread have been set out at the Highwood VFW post. The mayor of Highwood and the post officials have expressed their warmest welcome to the CMOH recipients, and the booze is flowing. Someone even rented two brand-new portable johns.

They all fill their paper plates and glasses, and they're warned not to take any glass outside--only plastic cups. Two Vietnam-era recipients sit talking about employment opportunities at Bechtel. Gary Wetzel lost an arm and passed out from loss of blood, but he kept coming to and trying to rescue his fellow soldiers; Patrick Brady performed a helicopter rescue mission in dense fog and under enemy fire. Wetzel, who has a hook in place of his forearm and hand, is dressed like a motorcycle-gang member. Brady, who looks like an accountant, hugs his 11-year-old daughter, who's eating up the fact that her dad is a hero.

Brian Duffy, of the Illinois Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program, explains to me why his organization, which counsels and helps employ Vietnam veterans, is hosting the CMOH recipients. "We like to highlight sacrifice to country and service to country. These men are the ultimate of that group. The important thing is that they are men from all wars. This is a good healing weekend. We believe in enhancing veteran unity--from all services and from all wars. Remember Panama? Remember Grenada? Do you remember them?"

David Ewton says he has no posttraumatic stress from Vietnam, but he has often had a hard time finding work. "When I first came back, everyone was calling me a murderer and a baby killer. My image was bad. Now it's hard to get a job because of the age factor." Ewton, who will return tonight to the shelter in Harvey, goes back for another helping of pork and macaroni salad. And a rum and Coke.

The CMOH recipients move around the plain VFW meeting room, giving autographs to whoever among the vets and their guests asks for them. Before boarding the bus for the trip back to the Holiday Inn, two soldiers from Fort Sheridan run up to get autographs in a CMOH history book they bought in the PX. "This is really something," says one. "I just can't believe these guys are here."

On the bus, one of the biggest CMOH groupies in the country, Pastor Mark Newbold from the Pious Chapel near Monticello, Indiana, says he invited Harold Fritz to talk about his medal at the church over a year ago--and Fritz's story turned him into a fan. Fritz received the medal after he, armed only with a pistol and a bayonet, led a small group of men in a fierce and daring charge on January 11, 1969, in the Binh Long province in Vietnam.

"People think these guys are just Rambos," says Newbold. "But they have character and personality. My five-year-old knows more about the Congressional Medal of Honor recipients than he knows about Batman and Superman. He can spot a recipient 100 miles away. Ken Stumps's action took place on my sixth birthday and Fritz's action took place on my wife's ninth birthday. It's a personal thing for me. I never served in the military--but I know enough to know that none of these guys should be alive. It's eerie to be eye to eye with these guys.

"They have such courage. They thought under pressure. They didn't fall apart or panic. Cowardice is when you stop thinking under pressure.

"One recipient stuffed his arm that had had everything shot out of it in his pants, and then everything his drill instructor told him came back to him. The last guy he shot, he shot lying on his back looking straight up at the enemy.

"One guy went into hand-to-hand combat with 900 Japanese. They didn't know he was alone. He wiped out a whole battalion in Guadalcanal. After a while he couldn't stand up. He was slipping on their blood.

"The medal singles out those with dedication. It goes back to Roman times. When those guys entered a Roman city, they went through a hole in the wall of the city--and then a bust of their head was put in the holes and they were fed at public expense and were tax-exempt and they got box seats for the Olympian games. Today our guys get $200 a month and military transport if there's room."

Bernard Francis Fisher, who is 64, exits the bus at the Holiday Inn. He's having trouble carrying a large, heavy cooler through the driveway and into the hotel, and he asks the doorman for a luggage cart. It's delivered to him promptly.

On March 10, 1966, Fisher rescued a fellow airman from a battle-torn airstrip in Vietnam, even though his aircraft took 19 bullets.

What made you do it? I ask him.

"He was shot down and I needed to rescue him," Fisher says. "I got into trouble."

It was just that simple? I ask him.

"Not really," he says with a sickly smile. He looks away from me and pushes the cart as fast as he can toward the hotel entrance.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Amy Schreiber.

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