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Old 12-29-2003, 05:44 AM
thedrifter thedrifter is offline
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Cool Forgotten Heroes

Wade R. Sanders: Forgotten Heroes

December 23, 2003

The crucible of war is often the ultimate test of human courage. From that searing process emerge those few who went beyond duty and displayed significant courage. Some of these men and women are recognized for their courage by enlightened leaders and a grateful nation. That recognition often comes in the form of medals, from Commendation Medals, the Bronze Star, and upward to the Medal of Honor. Others receive medals that celebrate their exceptional accomplishment in the completion of their non-combat assignments. A few of these men and women earned their medals for individual acts; but most earned them as part of a team.

During my service in Vietnam, and since, I have noticed that too few team leaders (particularly officers) fail to fulfill their primary duty of taking care of their troops by providing them with recognition for their courage and professionalism. Too often the members of that team are forgotten by the officers who receive medals for being in the same place at the same time doing the same thing. More often this sin is one of neglect, not mean spiritedness?many just wanted to put the war behind them and get on with their lives. However, I may be a bit more sensitive to this issue because I was a "mustang," a Naval Officer who started in the enlisted ranks (as did my father), and my father repeatedly reminded me where my primary duty lay.

During my tour in Vietnam aboard Navy patrol boats I was part of a six man team, five enlisted and myself as the boat commander. We experienced intense combat together; we fought and shed blood together: were a team of brothers. Some of us were wounded, and some of us did not come home. Because we (note the "we") performed with distinction in combat, I was singled out and awarded a number of personal decorations for our combat performance. I remembered my father's words; I understood that my medals were not solely mine. If I hadn't had each of my brave men with me, "we" would not have prevailed. So I made sure that each of my crew members were recognized for their bravery and I recommended them for their awards. I thought that this was the right thing to do, and I believed that everyone else did as well. I was wrong.

What I discovered was that many of my fellow boat officers had failed to recognize that they were part of a team and had neglected to take care of that team. (Of course, this syndrome is not restricted to the combat zone or to the military culture, but that's another article). This struck me hard about six months ago in the den of a Vietnam Veteran I had served with. This man had served two tours in Vietnam, including a year with aboard a patrol boat with an officer who received several of our nation's highest awards for heroism and gallantry in action. This former enlisted man had stood by that officer in the same combat, exposed himself to the same risk, was part of the same team that prevailed, and his officer left him behind with nothing but a Purple Heart. To my mind this is a terrible injustice.

Since I belong to an association of those who served in Navy patrol boats in Vietnam, I decided to see if I could improve the situation. After all, the one mantra that was ingrained into me by my father, and by the traditions of my service, was that my number one responsibility as an officer is to take care of my men (or women, to be contemporarily correct). So, I did a bit of research and discovered that there is no statute of limitations on awards. I found the office in the Pentagon that deals with awards, and I got the guidance I needed. The process is simple. An officer in charge of a unit is fully authorized to recommend any member of his "command" for a military decoration. Thinking this information would be of us, I requested to have it published in our quarterly newsletter. That's when the fecal matter hit the fan.

Not only was the information not well received by a surprising number of officers, it stirred up a backlash of resentment that shocked me. It was as if I was not merely passing information to enable officers to fix what they may have forgotten, it was as if I was personally accusing them of deliberately avoiding their responsibility. What I received was not gratitude, what I received was anger and resentment. However, the enlisted folks "got it."

So, I send this message to all military officers. It is never too late to do the right thing. If you feel you may have forgotten your men or women, you can still rectify that by contacting the office in your service responsible for processing military awards. For those of us from the Vietnam era and before, time is running out. Just a year ago I helped a friend of mine facilitate the awarding of a Distinguished Flying Cross to an 84 year old former B-24 tail gunner. I will never forget the look on that man's face as he joined the other members of his crew who had received the same medal nearly sixty years before.

I often recall the words of General George S. Patton in response to a member of the press. Struck by the magnificent display on the General's chest, the reporter commented, "You must be very proud of all your medals, General."

"Son, these medals are not mine, I wear them for the men who earned them."

Wade Sanders is a former deputy assistant secretary of the Navy, a decorated combat veteran and attorney practicing in San Diego. He can be reached at


SSgt. Roger A.
One Proud Marine
Once A Marine............Always A Marine.............
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