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On Memorial Day, Recipients of U.S. Military's Top Honor Look Back

On the last Monday in May each year, Americans observe Memorial Day [5/28 this year] to honor the men and women who have died while serving in the nation's armed forces. The U.S. military has its own tradition of recognizing men and women in uniform for distinguished service beyond the call of duty: the Medal of Honor.

While the majority of Medals of Honor are awarded posthumously, there are more than 100 living recipients. Two shared their memories with VOA.

On December 28th, 1968, while serving in Vietnam, U.S. Army Special Forces Sgt. Robert Louis Howard was leading a 150-man platoon on a search-and-rescue mission for a wounded Green Beret when his men were suddenly attacked by about 250 enemy soldiers.

Howard and his lieutenant stepped on a mine. Howard was knocked unconscious. "When I to, I was faced with an enemy soldier who had a flamethrower," Howard recalls. "He was burning some of my fellow Americans. I realized I was going to be burned up. I couldn't walk. My legs were blown up. My hands were blown up. I had a wound in my head and my face. I decided I still could move around."

So he pulled out a grenade. "I was going to blow myself up and the North Vietnamese soldier with the flamethrower." Although today Howard considers himself fortunate to have survived, he says, "My intent was to blow both of us up, because I didn't want to be burned to death."

Sgt. Howard crawled to his wounded lieutenant, grabbed him, and they snaked down a hill to where the rest of his platoon had taken cover. Hit again by enemy fire, Howard fired back, killing several enemy soldiers. He took charge of the remaining men in his platoon, and they repelled enemy forces for several days until U.S. Army helicopters evacuated them to safety.

Asked how he summoned the courage, Howard replies, "I didn't have any choice. Somebody had to take charge or we'd all have been killed. I knew that as long as I could fight, I would die fighting."

Sgt. Howard received the Medal of Honor in 1971 and retired at the rank of colonel in 1992.

"I was scared, of course," says another retired Army colonel, Jack Jacobs, recalling his own harrowing episode in Vietnam, as an adviser with a battalion of about 300 South Vietnamese troops when they were ambushed on March 9th, 1968. Many of his troops were killed, and Jacobs was sprayed with mortar shrapnel that tore through the top of his head.

Jacobs says he never thought of running away. "I don't think anybody does in that situation. You're there, (a.) to accomplish a mission; (b.) if you run away, you're going to get shot anyway. And, (c.) you're with your buddies. They rely on you, and you rely on them."

In the chaos of battle, despite the injuries, Jacobs somehow recalled a quote from a first-century Jewish philosopher: "Hillel, the great Hebrew scholar, who said, 'If not you, who?' He also said, 'If not now, when?' What's really motivating you is the notion that somebody's got to do something, and it's got to be you.'"

He pulled to safety at least 13 wounded platoon members, killing or wounding attacking enemy soldiers. Doctors later mended the broken fragments of his face and skull. Jacobs was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1969, later returned to Vietnam in 1972, and was wounded again.

Jack Jacobs, 62, and Robert Howard, 68, are two of the 110 living recipients of the Medal of Honor, the highest decoration awarded to a member of the United States military. The award was established by Congress nearly 140 years ago, in the words of the legislation: for gallantry and intrepidity…in action against the the risk of one's life...above and beyond the call of duty. Essentially, explains Howard, "you're giving your life to save the lives of your comrades."

The Medal of Honor is awarded after a selection process that begins with eyewitnesses at the scene of combat, and the medal is presented to a recipient by the President of the United States in a formal ceremony at the White House.

More than 60 percent of the 3500 Medals of Honor awarded since the American Civil War in the 1860s have been awarded posthumously. The most recent medals were awarded to the families of two U.S. servicemen killed in Iraq.

In 1958, Congress established the Congressional Medal of Honor Society to recognize the extraordinary heroism of medal recipients. The society recently opened a new museum that uses interactive computer imagery to tell stories of bravery and sacrifice. The museum was built aboard the World War II-era aircraft carrier, the USS Yorktown, now docked at Charleston, South Carolina.

More than 40 of the recipients were on hand for the museum opening. Many meet once a year and -- like, retired Colonels Howard and Jacobs -- talk to young people about how to handle the stress not only of combat, but of personal crises in their own lives.