Much More Than a Medal: Veterans Reflect on How Military’s Highest Honor Has Changed Them
“Vietnam is something I don’t like to talk about. Everything that happened … it was a tough time,” says Medal of Honor recipient retired Maj. James Taylor. His life has changed a great deal since he received the Medal of Honor on Nov. 19, 1968, for providing lifesaving first aid to three of his armored crews under heavy enemy fire and killing an enemy machine gun crew that had his company pinned down near Que Son a year earlier.
“My bride passed away recently, after a lifetime of being together. That has been an incredible challenge. But I have a lovely daughter who keeps me in line, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren,” Taylor says about his life today. But on how the medal has changed his life, the first thing that comes to mind is the notoriety the medal affords. “Once you receive the medal, you’re not Jim Taylor anymore. You’re ‘Maj. James Taylor, the Medal of Honor recipient.’ Sometimes I wish I could be incognito for just a little bit. I’d like to be able to walk into a room and have people just say, ‘Hey Jim, how you doing?’ Once you receive the medal, you’re always in the spotlight, but that is something you have to accept,” he says.
For Taylor, the “spotlight” the medal places on its recipients is most challenging because of the lofty ethos and standards that come with it. For this reason, he seeks to “be a better person” and “live up to the medal” every day.
“The values of the medal are courage, sacrifice, patriotism, citizenship, integrity and commitment. Now it’s my mission to promote these. To encourage our countrymen, especially our youth, to understand the cost of freedom and to strive to live those values and become worthy citizens,” he says. “When I was preparing to retire, I remember telling Gen. Creighton Abrams: ‘You may have to get me a bigger uniform, but you can always call on me, and I will always be on call for my country. Always.’ I’m 79, and I still am.”
Taylor promotes the medal’s values by traveling to civic speaking engagements across the country, and by working with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society on initiatives to highlight the medal’s history.
As Taylor puts it, “The biggest challenge upon receiving the medal is to live up to the medal.”
But at his age, maintaining the energy to keep up with the obligations of a recipient isn’t easy. “These days, the first thing I do when get out of bed is thank God for letting me wake up,” Taylor says with a laugh. “When you get to my age, you do that.” But after preparing a light breakfast and coffee and doing 30 to 45 minutes of cardio or light weights as physical training, he’s ready to take on the tasks of perpetuating the medal’s values.
An ‘Incredible Platform’
When retired Staff Sgt. Clint Romesha, 35, thinks back on how his life has changed since receiving the Medal of Honor 4½ years ago, he views the medal’s notoriety as its greatest gift. “I have this incredible platform now. I never had that before, but as a recipient, people care what you think,” Romesha says.
In Nuristan Province, Afghanistan, in October 2009, Romesha and 49 other troopers of 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, repelled a coordinated assault by some 300 Afghan insurgents on Combat Outpost Keating. By the end of the daylong fight, eight troopers were killed in action, 27 were wounded and official estimates figured approximately 150 Taliban were dead. It was during this battle that Romesha’s heroism would earn him what is officially known as “the nation’s highest medal for valor in combat that can be awarded to members of the armed forces.”
Romesha ultimately retired from the military and began life as a civilian, and it was during his transition that he was exposed to some of the challenges his brothers and sisters in arms faced upon leaving the military. He noticed some veterans from the current generation exit the service with an attitude of entitlement. They leave the military “and think they’ll show up [to their next job] and make six figures after two months of working at the company,” the retired staff sergeant says. If this doesn’t happen, reality can quickly frustrate them.
This attitude is not one that Romesha ascribed to. Instead, when he transitioned, he chose to work in the Bakken oil field of North Dakota, and sought out one of the toughest, messiest jobs in the industry: being a “swamper” on a hydrovac truck. The job consists of long hours outside, in isolated and desolate places, in snow, rain or sunshine, spraying water at 3,000 pounds per square inch through a high-pressure hose to cut dirt for pipe excavation. He wanted to prove himself in his new job instead of relying on his previous accomplishments. Romesha excelled and had a fleet of crews working for him three months later, but the pull toward his military roots was too strong to ignore. Calls for interviews, speaking engagements and a book he was writing about his unit’s experience overseas, Red Platoon: A True Story of American Valor, were consuming, and ultimately left little time for him to continue his work in the oil patch.
Romesha felt a strong obligation to use his Medal of Honor recipient status to help service members, but he found it difficult to give his oil field work the time it deserved. His company was unconcerned, and made it clear that he was welcome to stay on, regardless of his schedule. He declined, opting to leverage his recipient status to spend his days advocating for veterans issues and seeking to maintain the legacy of those who have served. “My job now is to make sure that the sacrifice of those who fight isn’t forgotten. As a nation, sometimes we pay more attention to the Kardashians than what’s going on overseas,” he says.
Romesha’s brothers were both enlisted men, his father fought in Vietnam and his grandfather fought during World War II on D-Day and in the Battle of the Bulge. As much as he sees a challenge in preserving the legacy of his fallen comrades, he also seeks to draw attention to the service of military families. “I want to put a face on the casualty statistics … help Americans remember the sacrifice of the parents, spouses and kids who’ve lost someone in war.” Romesha says he is engaged in a “fight against short-term memory,” seeking to preserve the legacy of service and sacrifice of the military community.
‘Just Doing My Job’
“The Medal of Honor hasn’t really changed my life,” says retired Lt. Col. Charles “Chuck” Kettles. Then he picks up a binder: “This thing is full of speaking and interview requests. I try to keep ahead of it all. People want to know about the medal, and I have a responsibility to tell them. That has been a change. … It was a hell of a lot easier flying missions.” But he maintains the fact that becoming a Medal of Honor recipient hasn’t significantly changed his life or worldview in any other respects. He makes a point that he has reiterated numerous times in the past: “It seems to me like a hell of a fuss over something that happened 50 years ago. I was just doing my job.” But President Barack Obama’s sentiments were different on the day of Kettles’ award ceremony in 2016 when he said, “To the dozens of American soldiers that he saved in Vietnam, half a century ago, Chuck is the reason they lived and came home and had children and grandchildren. Entire family trees, made possible by the actions of this one man.”
As a helicopter pilot in May 1967, Kettles distinguished himself with actions that saved the lives of 44 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. “The situation called for a helicopter. I had one. I had the room on board, so I just flew in and got them,” Kettles recalls. “We have an inherent responsibility to protect each other. … I figured, ‘This is just war. It’s what happens.’ ” The Army figured things differently, and awarded then-Maj. Kettles the Distinguished Flying Cross a year after the mission. However, it would be a half-century before DoD and Congress would reconsider the original citation and award Kettles the Medal of Honor for his heroism.
For half a century after his heroic acts, Kettles would live without the medal, and he is firm in his belief: “The best award I got was not having their names on the [Vietnam Veterans Memorial] wall in D.C.” But ultimately, the medal caught up with Kettles’ heroism, and now he spends his days trying to keep up with the ever-growing binder of speaking and interview requests, and invitations to attend civic and military functions. He has been invited to attend events all over the country, recently receiving a request to be honored at the St. Barbara’s Day Ball in Fort Sill, Okla. Traveling from his home in Ypsilanti, Mich., these treks aren’t easy for the 87-year-old, but he tries his best.
The challenge of making himself available for these obligations is compounded by the challenge of ensuring he is available for his spouse. “I spend my mornings helping my wife,” says Kettles, who moved into his current one-story flat 15 years ago, after living next door for 28 years. “Fifteen years ago, she had a stroke. I like to be around so I can take care of her. I’ve learned new skills. I can cook now, grocery shop, do laundry and separate the lights from the darks. I guess I’m still trainable!”
‘Put Others Before Self’
In addition to the speaking engagements and civic functions, Taylor finds fulfillment through living the values of the medal in less public ways. “The most important thing I learned in the Army is that you always put others before self. Always. Family, soldiers, friends. You serve them,” he says.
Before he can finish his thought, the phone rings and Taylor answers on speakerphone: “Jerry, how are you? How was your trip to the DMV?” Jerry answers, “Distressing! You show up and wait and wait and wait! But I’m done now. Let’s get a beer! You ready to head out?”
Taylor has to decline because he’s being interviewed, and later explains, “Jerry is a 95-year-old World War II Army veteran. I volunteered to be a caretaker for him. It brings me happiness, and we really enjoy each other. He lost his spouse, too. … That connection of Army service means a lot and brings a lot of camaraderie. And Jerry always likes his beer in the afternoon. But we’ll grab it after this interview.”
Service to others is a common theme among these Medal of Honor recipients. And whether the service is rendered to fellow soldiers or family, it seems to be a source of the energy needed to keep up with the obligations of the medal.
Romesha says, “My morning routine is different now. Sometimes I miss the PT with the unit, and the mornings in the training room, knocking out counselings before the other NCOs and I would grab breakfast at some diner in town.” But his new morning routines have significance too: “After a morning cigarette and a cup of coffee, it’s time to get the kids out of bed and out the door for school. And every now and then, I go out to hunt coyotes. But most of the time, I have emails to catch up on.”
Civic engagements, speaking requests and veterans’ charity organizations keep his inbox full, and Romesha doesn’t shirk his new responsibilities. He also serves on his congressman’s veterans’ advisory council, where he has the opportunity to weigh in on issues affecting veterans and help his representative make informed decisions. “I wish more veterans had that opportunity, but they don’t,” he says. “I can’t waste the time or the opportunity the medal affords me to make a difference.”
There is no one-size-fits-all answer for why a person joins the armed services. This is as true for Medal of Honor recipients as for anyone who takes the oath to support and defend the Constitution. Kettles was drafted, Taylor was unsure of what to do after high school and saw no higher calling than serving the nation in uniform, and Romesha enlisted to join in his family’s tradition. But the common heroism exhibited by the men upon their commitment to serve would ultimately put each of them in positions to challenge the destinies of the battles they fought. “Every American has the [same] ability to challenge fate and change the course of history,” Taylor says.
One thing is clear: Recipients are less concerned with how the medal has changed their lives than they are about how their actions shape the perception and legacy of the medal. And although their heroism, citations and motivations to serve differ, they share a common view: Receiving the medal, and the honor, prestige and challenges that come with it, are mandates to continue to serve. They strive to do so every day.