How to Live Heroically

Medal of Honor recipients share secrets of everyday valor

Medal of Honor recipient Harvey Barnum

Medal of Honor recipient Harvey Barnum shakes hands with a Wakefield, Massachusetts, police officer before boarding a Black Hawk helicopter and departing from Wakefield High School. Barnum, a Vietnam veteran in Boston for the 2015 Medal of Honor Convention, shared life lessons at the school as part of the Medal of Honor Society's Character Development Program.

They risked their lives to save others in battle. Now they’re teaching younger generations to show that same spirit of bravery.

Many of the United States’ 78 living Medal of Honor recipients have taken on a new mission: sharing character-building lessons with teachers and students at middle schools and high schools. They told their stories at Minneapolis-area schools while in town for the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s annual convention, co-sponsored by Raytheon. asked several Vietnam-era recipients about the lessons they share – and how civilians can use that knowledge in everyday life. Here are their answers:

Anyone can be a hero

Heroism doesn’t require suiting up in battle gear or rescuing comrades from the enemy, said retired U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Kelley. All you need is a desire to do good for others.

“You don’t have to be in a uniform. You don’t have to be in a battlefield. We all downplay completely the combat aspect,” Kelley said. “It’s all about serving somebody else – taking care of your fellow man, and you can do it at any level.”

Retired U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Kelley

Retired U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Kelley says heroes "don't have to be in uniform ... it's all about serving somebody else." (Nick Del Calzo photo/"Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty")

Stand up for those in need

Kelley knows a few things about helping people.

While commanding a division of river assault craft on a mission to extract infantry, one of the boats had a ramp malfunction. Viet Cong forces opened fire from the other side of the canal.

Kelley, knowing the disabled craft couldn’t move until the crew fixed the ramp, ordered the rest of the division to form a protective ring – then steered his own boat into the line of fire.

The enemy scored a direct hit with a rocket-propelled grenade, leaving Kelley with serious head injuries. He still managed to issue commands through one of his men and get the company to safety.

That experience of putting himself in harm’s way for others is why he encourages people to step up for those in distress – especially, he said, in cases of bullying.

“If you’re a middle school kid and you see one of your classmates being bullied or something like that, you can step in at your own risk,” he said. “It takes a certain amount of courage, but anybody can do it. Anybody has the wherewithal within themselves to do great things."

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Col. Jay Vargas

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Col. Jay Vargas kept his fellow troops bolstered and fighting during a ferocious three-day battle in Vietnam. He urges people to listen to their elders and tap into their vast stores of knowledge. (Nick Del Calzo photo/"Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty")

Overcome your disappointment

Long before he became a U.S. Marine Corps colonel, Jay Vargas was a good ballplayer with dreams of making the majors. He was playing for the class AA affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers organization when a problem came up.

“For some reason,” he said, “I couldn’t hit the slider.”

The team cut him, and he went home devastated. But after his father reminded him that he’d accomplished something few ballplayers ever do, he focused on another lifelong ambition: To be like his brothers. One had fought in Iwo Jima, another in Okinawa, and a third in Korea.

“I think I wanted to be a Marine just like them ever since I was a little kid,” Vargas said.

After falling short of his first goal, he set a new one and achieved it, leading to a long and stellar military career.

“I opened up that door and walked through it,” Vargas said. “Thirty years. Never regretted it.”

Listen to elders

Vargas has an incredible story, and he doesn’t mind telling it. But you have to ask him. Which is why he tells people to listen to their elders.

“Don’t be afraid to sit at the feet of an elder. We learn a lot from our elders, and I think that the more we use them, the better,” he said. “Don’t ever be afraid to sit down and talk to an elder. You will often be surprised what you can learn.”

The short version of Vargas’ Medal of Honor citation: He was in a ferocious three-day battle against a fortified enemy village. He was injured three times – once by enemy fire, once by grenade fragments, and once during hand-to-hand combat. He kept his men advancing the whole way through, and even worked through immense pain to carry a severely injured battalion commander to cover.

Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Leo Thorsness

Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Leo Thorsness says thoughts of family, friends, faith and fun sustained him during his year at the POW camp in Hanoi. (Nick Del Calzo photo/"Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty")

Focus and fight through crisis

Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Leo Thorsness spent a year living in a 5-foot-by-6-foot POW cell in Hanoi. Even in those deplorable conditions, he reminded himself that he was lucky.

“I realized I was more free by being an American than those prison guards would ever be,” he said.

Thorsness, an F-105 fighter pilot, was shot down and captured just a week and a half after the actions that earned him the Medal of Honor – a dogfight with enemy MiGs while protecting two fellow fighters who had ejected from their plane.

While a prisoner of war, Thorsness  made a list of the things he and his fellow POWs talked about to sustain themselves. The top four, he said: Family, friends, faith and fun.

“Those were obviously the most important things in our lives, and were the things we were most concerned about,” Thorsness saud. “I like to tell students how, if you surround yourself with those four things, your life will be much fuller.”

Retired U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Gary Littrell

Retired U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Gary Littrell exhibited "near superhuman endurance" to get his battalion through a four-day fight in Vietnam. "I was just a noncommissioned officer doing my job," he said.

Do your job well

Most Medal of Honor recipients didn’t seek out the chance to be heroes. They say they were just doing their duty.

So went the story of retired U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Gary Littrell, whose citation said he exhibited “near superhuman endurance” while getting his battalion through a four-day fight against 5,000 North Vietnamese soldiers. Littrell was an advisor to allied Vietnamese infantry when the group was surrounded atop a hill. For four days, they fought the enemies off, with Littrell abandoning positions of safety, directing artillery and air support, caring for the wounded and even shouting encouragement to the Vietnamese in their own language.

“At the end of that battle, the people I worked with felt that some of my actions to survive were above and beyond the call of duty,” he said. “I personally feel I was just a noncommissioned officer doing my job. I’d done nothing heroic. I’d done my duty. I’d done my job. But others felt the actions were heroic and they recommended me for the Medal of Honor.”

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Published On: 10/03/2016
Last Updated: 12/18/2017