Remember valor of individual soldiers

America’s military traditions are much in the news lately.

The debate continues about Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the soldier imprisoned by the Taliban in Afghanistan who was released in exchange for prisoners held by the United States. The circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture and release have become fodder for politicians on both sides who want to use the situation to their advantage. But our long tradition of leaving no soldier behind was an important part of the outcome.

And last week, the world marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the historic invasion of France by the United States and its allies. It was one of history’s pronounced moments, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Daniel Malloy was in France last week alongside local veteran Carl Beck to document his memories and perspective. You can read about it on today’s front page and watch a video at

What happened in Afghanistan and Normandy are separated by decades of history, eons of cultural differences and changing interpretations of tradition. And Bergdahl’s actions don’t appear to compare at all favorably to those of the men who charged up Omaha Beach on that fateful day in 1944.

But considering carefully both of the situations highlights an important point about our country.

Throughout its history, the United States has called upon the individual soldier (or sailor or airman) when our security has been threatened.

And in the end, amidst all of the military theory, the political debates, the sophisticated weapons and ever-changing global balances of power, one truth persists: The actions of individuals in combat ultimately determine the outcome.

I was powerfully reminded of that last week, when I was asked to emcee an event at the Atlanta History Center that honored recipients of the Medal of Honor.

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the Medal of Honor is the “highest military decoration that may be awarded by the United States government. It is presented by the President of the United States, in the name of Congress, and is conferred only upon members of the United States Armed Forces who distinguish themselves through conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.”

It was first awarded in 1863, and was most recently awarded on May 13, 2014 to Sgt. Kyle J. White for actions in Afghanistan. There have been 3,488 recipients of the Medal of Honor; 78 are still alive.

The stilted government prose and the statistics don’t come close to capturing what the men at that luncheon are like, or their remarkable stories.

Take Harold Fritz.

Then-Army Lt. Fritz was in Vietnam in 1969, leading his seven-vehicle armored column when it suddenly came under attack.

According to his citation: “In the initial attack, Fritz’s vehicle was hit and he was seriously wounded. Realizing that his platoon was surrounded, outnumbered, and in danger of being overrun, Capt. Fritz leaped to the top of his burning vehicle and took charge. With complete disregard for his wounds and safety, he ran from vehicle to vehicle in complete view of the enemy gunners in order to reposition his men, to improve the defenses, to assist the wounded, to distribute ammunition, to direct fire and to provide encouragement to his men. Through his exemplary action, he inspired his men to rout the attackers.”

Moments later, a second enemy force arrived. Fritz, armed only with a pistol and bayonet, led a small group of his men in a charge and routed the second group of attackers.

Fritz is now the president of the Medal of Honor Society, a group that supports the recipients and works to preserve the traditions of the medal.

Then there was Cpl. Hershel “Woody” Williams, at the time a 22-year-old Marine.

He received the Medal of Honor for his actions on Iwo Jima during World War II, when the Marines found themselves in what would become one of that war’s best-known battles. A history of his actions reads in part: “His unyielding determination and extraordinary heroism in the face of ruthless enemy resistance were directly instrumental in neutralizing one of the most fanatically defended Japanese strong points.”

What really happened? When Williams’ unit landed on Iwo Jima, they planned to use flamethrowers to attack Japanese pillboxes, where enemy gunners were positioned to mow down the Americans on the beach. When the Marines manning the flamethowers were almost immediately killed, Williams grabbed one of the flamethrowers and attacked the pillboxes himself, under intense fire from the island’s defenders.

Joe Jackson, another Medal of Honor recipient at the event, was born in Newnan. He received the medal as a pilot who landed his transport plane in a battle zone overrun by North Vietnamese troops so he could rescue three Americans who’d been left behind.

There isn’t room on this page to tell all the stories of the remarkable men at that luncheon. And there are many other stories like theirs — stories of the heroic individual who carries out their duty under horrible circumstances.

It’s worth remembering such individual actions as the World War II anniversaries come at us and as new controversies erupt around America’s military. In the end, the nation’s fate comes down to the soldier in the battle.