-On Thursday night the Bryn Mawr Conference Center was filled with guests waiting to hear from Medal of Honor recipient Col. (U.S.A. Ret.) Jack Jacobs at the annual dinner of the Wayne Economic Development Corporation (WEDCO).
This year's meeting paid tribute to the nation's highest military honor. Robert Jerome from the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation interviewed Jacobs following a buffet-style dinner and several videos that honored other Medal of Honor recipients and the history of the Medal of Honor.
The Congressional Medal of Honor Foundations serves as the educational arm of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, which is compromised of the living recipients of the award.
On March 9, 1968 Col. Jacobs, then First Lieutenant, was with the lead companies of his South Vietnamese Battalion when, without warning, they came under intense fire from mortars, rifles and machine guns by a Vietcong enemy force. Within minutes many of the battalion were killed or wounded.
Jacobs was hit by an exploding mortar that sent shrapnel tearing through the top of his head and face, breaking most of the bones in his face and the loss of sight in one eye. In complete disregard for his wounds, he dragged his badly wounded American Sergeant to safety and then returned to the battle to save others, each time through a hail of enemy fire.
"He went back not once or twice but 25 times, each time carrying or dragging an injured comrade," said Jerome. "He organized troops and directed a counter attack. After helping the 25th victim, Jack finally collapsed from blood loss and the severity of his wounds."
Rotated back to the states to recover, Jacobs returned to Vietnam again in 1972 and was wounded yet again. For his actions on March 9, 1968, Jacobs was presented the Medal of Honor by President Richard Nixon on October 9, 1969.
"Abraham Lincoln introduced the first of what would be three versions of the Medal of Honor, for the Marines, Navy and Coast Guard," said Jerome. "Six months later in June 1862 the second was given for the Army and in June 1960 it was the third and final, for the Air Force."
He said that unlike any other medal awarded in the service, a nomination for the Medal of Honor comes from fellow soldiers who are "witnesses to the act of bravery of extraordinary proportions." They then submit the account of the action in writing to their commanding officer.
"That begins the journey of the chain of command where at any time that recommendation can be diverted to a different medal, set aside all together or sadly, over the years in some cases, deliberately destroyed," Jerome explained. "Upon getting signed at the Pentagon it is sent to Congress where a joint resolution is passed, authorizing the President of the United States to award the Medal of Honor in a ceremony at the White House. Today, Medal of Honor 3,461 was awarded to a Korean War veteran. The most recent living recipient received his on February 11."
Page 2 of 5 - That recipient was Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha from the Army, who defended against what was regarded as probably "one of the most horrific attacks" by the Taliban.
"With his 80 men, he made a counter attack against a force of nearly 400," said Jerome. "He was responsible for leading a counter attack and ultimately insuring anyone who survived the attack lived to tell the tale."
Jerome said that now there are only 80 living recipients of the Medal of Honor. The average age is mid-70s. He said that in 10 years, we could be down to four or five.
"The Medal of Honor Foundation exists for several important reasons," he said. "First, to support recipients of the Medal of Honor and to further the distribution of a curriculum called the character development program, in which Pennsylvania has been a huge supporter of. The main reason we do what we do is to make sure we never forget what the price of freedom has cost us. The foundation does not receive anything from any government entity. We rely on the generosity of people like you and I to preserve our objectives and achieve our goals."
After talking about the Medal of Honor and its background, Jerome introduced Jacobs and the interview began. It was conducted on a stage in front of the audience and was also displayed on several screens spread out around the room.
Q: What aspects of leadership do you find are responsible for your decision that day (March 9, 1968)?
A: If you take responsibility for your actions you probably do the right thing. I've been asked what was going through my mind and I'm always reminded by a first century saying that says "If not you and if not now, when? If you don't do it who's going to?" I thought I could accomplish something nobody else could. Everyone else was out in the open. We were in a position where if somebody didn't do anything right away it would all be lost. I did what anybody else would have done in the same situation. In fact, people in similar situations have always done that in defending themselves, their freedom and their country. It's not so much a question of leadership but personal responsibility. We all know the right thing to do and sometimes make excuses for not doing it, but that doesn't excuse us for not doing it. I thought I was the only person capable of getting it done and went ahead and did it. In the military you see that all the time where it's always for each other and not for ourselves.
Page 3 of 5 - Q: What role did fear have if any?
A: It had a major role. You're always scared in combat and if I wasn't in combat, I was always scared I would be in combat. Anybody who says they aren't scared for combat is lying. I think, and those of you who have been in combat know this is true, that the essence of valor isn't an absence of fear. The essence of valor, I think, isn't about having no fear, but being absolutely scared witless and doing what you know you're supposed to do in spite of it. What's more powerful than the fear of being hurt or killed is the fear of not knowing your duty.
Q: How did you find out you received the medal?
A: It's very interesting. I was commanding my company and when I was in my office I was told by my company clerk to answer the phone; that it was a Colonel from Washington. This isn't a call you want to get. You don't want to hear from any Colonel from anywhere. That's like saying pick up the phone, it's your wife's lawyer. I picked up and they asked if I was captain Jack Jacobs. I asked what this was all about and he said you'll be hearing from us and then hung up. This is not a good call. I was trying to figure out what I did, what was wrong, did someone else do something. So I spent the next 10 days worrying about what seemed to be the rest of my adult life trying to figure out what he was calling about. A few days later I was told to answer the phone and it was another Colonel. So now I was really in trouble. I picked up and he said he was in charge of army awards. He said congratulations you received the Medal of Honor. He said they would make arrangements to get my family and me to Washington for a ceremony at the White House. He said congratulations again and that was the totality of the conversation. That was it. I was extremely confused to say the least. It's very different now. There's a lot of public relations and politics involved and they announce the names in advance. It's more structured than it used to be. It was a tremendous surprise to me. And if you talk to other recipients they'll say it was a surprise as well.
Q: What was it like meeting the President?
A: Four of us were decorated with different actions in the Army on the same day in the Oval Office. We were taken to the East Room for a little buffet of pastries and coffee. President Nixon asked me, "Are you scared?" I said, "No sir, I'm not." He said, "You liar." Immediately after the ceremony he delivered some major foreign policy address, which is something he never liked to do. He was comfortable with people in small rooms, but did not like to do public speaking, which is quite astonishing for someone who was in the House and Senate and was at the White House. Years later I saw him again. He was going to deliver an address at National War College in New Jersey. He went out into the rotunda and President Nixon saw me across rotunda and said, "I know you." I said, "Yes sir I was at the White House 17 years ago and you decorated me." He gave me a big hug.
Page 4 of 5 - Jerome changed pace after a few questions and started talking about the character development program.
"There are six pillars to the Medal of Honor," he said. "They are courage, commitment, citizenship, integrity, patriotism and selfless sacrifice and service. It's a curriculum about these six principles and not about war. We've woven some heroes' stories into the curriculum at middle and high schools. The state of Pennsylvania is the birthplace for it."
He added that they offer the program to schools at no charge and that they reimburse that school system for bringing teachers to train and for the cost to hire substitutes.
"Jack has been instrumental in not just the development and birth of the program, but also the ongoing success of it," Jerome said.
"When I was getting decorated there were 400 living recipients," said Jacobs. "Now there are only 80 and statistically there will be none soon. We all thought the only way we can change anyone's life is to reach into the future through education. Without it, we are lost. We also thought it would be a waste if the experiences and teachings of those experiences of Medal of Honor recipients were lost. Once gone, it's gone forever and you can't get it back. It's important to keep children viewing these values because without them we are all lost. The program has turned out to be a tremendous success. It's astonishing what impact the curriculum can have on kids. If we don't make sure they know it, they're children won't know it either."
Q: What does it mean to you to be a recipient of the medal and to wear it around your neck?
A: Everyone who has gotten it would tell you that we don't wear it for ourselves. We wear it for all who can't. There are a lot of great people and not many see what they did, which is one of the requirements. All of them, whether we met them or not, have a special place in our heart. We wear it for those who can't wear it themselves.
As the evening was nearing its end Jerome wanted everyone to leave with a simple message.
"There is nothing free about freedom," he said. "It's a very costly benefit paid for by the sacrifices of many putting their lives in harm's way. In that sense we are all recipients of a gift paid for by the sacrifice of others. How blessed are we as Americans to have the freedom to worship, the freedom to learn, the freedom to succeed and the freedom to determine our own destiny, to be there Americans we want to be and to be the Americans we hope to be. It's understandable why refugees wait in line to come here. We can't possibly fathom their intense hunger for that freedom.
Page 5 of 5 - Those who receive the Medal of Honor uniquely represent a cross-section of our nation as a whole. They never sought it and never felt they deserved it, but they are honored by the extraordinary responsibility they carry and are being recognized as an American hero. For them, the medal becomes a symbol of valor and sacrifice as you heard, not just of themselves, but of fellow soldiers who didn't receive it, but nonetheless serve, and too often die to preserve the freedom we love."