Opinion

TV tries to tarnish the Medal of Honor

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Photo - The Medal of Honor awarded to Gary Wetzel hangs around his neck during the 2012 Medal of Honor luncheon presented  by the National Foundations of Patriotism Friday, May 11, 2012, in Atlanta. Wetzel was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions while in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam war.  (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
The Medal of Honor awarded to Gary Wetzel hangs around his neck during the 2012 Medal of Honor luncheon presented by the National Foundations of Patriotism Friday, May 11, 2012, in Atlanta. Wetzel was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions while in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam war. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Opinion,Op-Eds

We are so used to seeing Hollywood play fast and loose with facts to score political points, it's hard to get excited about it. But there are some things that cannot be allowed to pass.

The worst instance in many a year came in an episode of the CBS series "NCIS" that aired on Oct. 30. One of the subplots told the story of a World War II hero, a black Marine, who had fallen on hard times and tried to pawn his Medal of Honor.

Explaining why a World War II vet had only received his medal in 1996, one character explains that "because of discrimination, no African-American was awarded the Medal of Honor until Congress passed legislation in 1996 to correct the injustice." A Photoshopped picture of the fictional Marine was shown standing next to President Clinton.

It would be beneath the dignity of medal recipients to respond to this falsity, so let us do it for them. The Medal of Honor was created during the Civil War. The first black soldier to be awarded the medal, according to the records I've found, was William Carney of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, who received it for valor in action on July 18, 1863. In the Indian Wars of the 1870s and 1880s, in the Spanish American War, World War I, Vietnam and Korea, many black Americans were awarded the medal. But not during World War II.

When the Clinton administration discovered this, the armed services reviewed their records and determined that seven men who had received lesser medals could be eligible for the Medal of Honor. Legislation was obtained to set aside the legal time limitation on the award for World War II medals, and the seven -- six posthumously -- were belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor.

No one should begrudge those men the award they deserved. But to say that no blacks were awarded it before Clinton engineered the legislation is simply wrong.

"NCIS" was apparently trying to grant Clinton credit for something he didn't do. More importantly, it unjustly cheapened the medal itself by saying that no blacks had been awarded it before Clinton acted. The implication is that awards of the medal before Clinton are diminished by discrimination against blacks.

I have had the privilege of knowing a number of medal recipients over the years. Every one I've met was quiet, taking pride in his heroism without needing to say a word about it. If you press them, they will tell you -- some in very emotional terms -- how their battles went, and how they acted only to save their fellow soldiers from certain death.

One man crawled back and forth through heavy machine gun fire for four hours on Iwo Jima, knocking out Japanese gun emplacements so that his fellow Marines could get off the beach. Another crash-landed under fire near the Chosin Reservoir in Korea to rescue a downed pilot. Yet another, a Navy SEAL, ran through heavy fire to rescue his wounded commanding officer, then swam out to sea with his commander strapped to his back and a wounded Vietnamese soldier strapped to his front, and kept the two afloat for two hours until a rescue boat came.

Every medal was earned in such circumstances.

Nothing can diminish their heroism. Not the passage of time, not the Hollywood types who try to use the medal to score political points. Their valor shines brightly, whatever people may say or think.

Jed Babbin was appointed deputy undersecretary of defense by President George H.W. Bush. He is the author of such best-selling books as "Inside the Asylum" and "In the Words of Our Enemies."

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