The U.S. Medal of Honor is the highest award given to Americans for valor in combat. It's bestowed for extraordinary acts of courage or sacrifice, and the president must approve all recipients. Since the award was created more than a century ago, there have been just 3,440 recipients, including President Theodore Roosevelt. It's been awarded to only one woman, a civil war surgeon and prisoner of war named Mary Walker.
Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty profiles 116 living Medal of Honor winners. Nick Del Calzo created the book and photographed the Medal of Honor recipients. Peter Collier wrote the text.
Nick Del Calzo was just turning six years old in 1941, when the Japanese attacked the U.S. air base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He watched three of his brothers go off to war, and after he became a photographer years later, he decided to do something to honor their bravery. To compile Medal of Honor, he photographed a range of men representing different wars, diverse backgrounds and varied ethnic groups - white, African American, Native American, Asian American and Latino. But Nick Del Calzo says they shared common qualities.
"Some of them faced death a number of times, and I think it put life in perspective as to what's truly important, and they developed an inner peace," he said. "This inner peace I think led to a strong character. And they really don't want to talk about their action. They didn't think they did anything extraordinary. They thought they were just carrying out what had to be done."
Among those profiled in the book is U.S. Army Colonel Jack Jacobs. He earned his Medal of Honor for his actions while advising a South Vietnamese Infantry Battalion in 1968. A devastating ambush killed many Vietnamese soldiers in the unit and left its commander badly wounded. Despite suffering severe injuries himself, Colonel Jacobs took command, and returned repeatedly to the battlefield, rescuing 13 soldiers in the process. At the time, he says, he had no thoughts of being heroic.
"When you're in a combat situation, you're surrounded by your comrades and your buddies, many of whom were killed or wounded and you have an impulse to not abandon them and do want you can to make sure the mission gets completed and the rest of the force gets saved," he said.
Medal of Honor recipients like Jack Jacobs are part of a tradition that dates back to 1861. Nick Kehoe is a retired Air Force Lieutenant General and President of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation, which helped coordinate publication of the new book. He says President Abraham Lincoln approved the first Medal of Honor recipients in the early days of the American Civil War. Since then, an elaborate system for choosing the recipients has evolved.
"First of all they're going to be involved in an action in which they put their life on the line," General Kehoe said. "In many cases it will involve action which saves the lives of other of their comrades. That action is observed by eyewitnesses, and somebody says this warrants us nominating this individual for the Medal of Honor. Then it goes through a huge chain of command and ultimately the President. There's a lot of focus on preserving the integrity of the award so it's not awarded for the wrong reason."
General Kehoe says the medal is rarely awarded these days.
"The circumstances under which we fight today I think makes it less likely that people will face those kinds of situations that might lead to the awarding of the medal," he said. "And we use our technology to our advantage. I understand, but only through media sources, that there has been at least one, and maybe two who were nominated as a result of the Iraq war, and both of them were killed in action."
That means many of the stories in the book evoke more distant times in history, including that of a very young Medal of Honor winner. Jack Lucas was 13 years old when he decided to join the Marines. His mother refused to sign his enlistment papers.
"And he forged her signature," Nick Del Calzo said. "He looked a little older and the recruitment officer accepted that. Shortly before he was 17 he landed on Iwa Jima, and the second day he was on the island a hand grenade was thrown near him and his buddies. He hurled his body on to the hand grenade. And that courageous act inflicted near mortal wounds on Jack. He went on to have 22 operations, and when he returned to the United States he fulfilled the pledge to his mother, and returned to his ninth grade class."
While men like Jack Lucas were unassuming about what they did during combat, Nick Del Calzo says he wanted to suggest the magnitude of their achievements by photographing them alongside national monuments like the Statue of Liberty and the Lincoln Memorial.
"There was an interesting story about Leo Thorsness, who received his Medal for an action prior to being shot down in Vietnam as a pilot and then became a prisoner of war for six years in a Vietnam prison," he said. "And he said he was quite humbled to have been photographed with Lincoln. My reply was that I knew of no one who was more deserving of that association than he, because he experienced the loss of freedom and knew what it was to regain it."
Some Medal of Honor winners have gone on to become celebrated public figures in other areas. Hawaiian senator Daniel Inoye is among the recipients featured in the book, as is former Nebraska governor and Senator Bob Kerrey. Others have chosen to lead quiet lives out of the spotlight. And more than 60 percent died in action, receiving their Medals posthumously. Colonel Jack Jacobs says there are also many who should have earned the medal, but didn't. He wears his with them in mind.
"There are lots and lots of heroic acts performed that no one sees, or someone sees them and they perish, so they never come to light," he said. "So you're wearing it for men and women who have fought and who are fighting now, and there's a huge obligation that goes with that."
Medal of Honor ends with a section dedicated to a final group of recipients. They are the fallen soldiers buried at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, outside Washington, D.C. They too have been awarded the Medal of Honor, as a reminder that all who give their lives for their country are heroes.