In the Korean War, it was Private 1st Class Eugene Obregon at the second Battle of Seoul. He was carrying ammunition and armed with only a sidearm when he saw fellow PFC Bert Johnson wounded in the middle of a road. The Mexican American drew his pistol and started firing at an advancing enemy platoon with one hand while dragging Johnson into a shallow ditch and started bandaging his wounds while under fire.
When the enemy platoon turned on him, he pushed Johnson down, grabbing the wounded man’s rifle and covered his body with his own returning fire until he was killed. The Marine beneath him survived to tell the story.
It wasn’t the first battle for 1st Sgt. Pascal Cleatus Poolaw in the Battle of Loc Ninh, Vietnam. His service record and medals went back to World War II and made the 45-year-old Kiowa the most decorated man on the field. For nine days, he and his 26th Infantry Regiment’s C company battled the Viet Cong.
On a search-and-destroy mission, his unit was ambushed and Poolaw countered the attack. They beat back the Viet Cong when he saw a wounded soldier and pulled him to safety -- sustaining the wounds that took his life.
A year later, senior Special Forces advisor Sgt. 1st Class Eugene Ashley Jr. would hastily put together an assault force to rescue trapped soldiers at Camp Lang Vei. When communications went down, the 37-year-old Black American sergeant led four unbelievable charges against a determined North Vietnamese Army. It was the fifth charge that carved a tunnel in the enemy forces, allowing the men to escape. Ashley lost consciousness from the wounds received accomplishing it. He was killed by an artillery explosion while his men were carrying him to the medics.
White, Asian, Latino, American Indian and Black American. Sailors, soldiers, and marines who gave their lives in battle saving others. They didn’t give a damn about the color of their comrade, the way he prayed, thought, or how he voted.
All but Poolaw were posthumous recipients of the Medal of Honor. Rule one of that award is a sailor or soldier can’t be following orders to receive it. The sacrifices made by them were their own decisions. They weren’t servicemen at those moments. They were Americans saving Americans.
They’re five among 1.3 million citizen-soldiers who have given their lives in U.S. wars since our founding in 1776. We celebrate that beginning on every July 4th, and it is fitting we honor on a date in May the men and women who gave their lives to keep this nation.
Ed Hooper is a documentary producer and writer based in Knoxville.