Paul Greenberg

When someone who has earned the Medal of Honor enters a room, a hush follows, like waters opening. The stillness in his wake is palpable. Men are filled with more than admiration. The emotion is a mix of awe, envy and wonder. "Would I be capable of that?" each asks himself.

Genteel ladies understand and hang back.

Generals stand aside. "I'd sell my immortal soul for that medal," George S. Patton confessed.

Even politicians stop thinking of themselves. And the best of them are humbled. Harry Truman, a captain of artillery himself in the Great War, was heard to remark, "I would rather have the blue band of the Medal of Honor around my neck than be president."

Years ago, when the society of Medal of Honor recipients gathered here in Little Rock, the sensation was overpowering as each was called to the stage. Name, rank, branch of service, race, color, creed ... none of that mattered. Only their courage.

Freedom is much praised, but without courage, it is fleeting. As all know but too easily forget. Till the presence of someone wearing that blue band around his neck speaks that truth without a word being said. Or needing to be.

From the moment the country's highest honor is presented, the recipient is a marked man. He is different, and everyone knows it. He bears a great honor and an even greater burden. For all eyes are on him, and will be as long as he lives. And his story will be told long after he is gone. He no longer belongs to himself but to posterity. No wonder one recipient said it was harder to wear the medal than earn it.

Perhaps even more remarkable than his heroism was the grace with which Nick Bacon, a farm boy from near Caraway, Ark., wore that indelible honor. When you met him, he might ask only about your branch, unit, length of service and what he could do for you.

But you knew that behind the friendly, unassuming manner was a story as distinctive, and as essential to whatever remains of the West's civilization, as when the poet first sang of arms and the man.

There are fewer than a hundred Medal of Honor recipients still living, and now there is one less: Nick Bacon has died. At 64. Of the cancer he'd long fought. The state is in mourning. He'd earned the medal in Vietnam, taking command of one platoon after its leader was wounded, and of another when it, too, lost its leader, personally wiping out an enemy machine-gun nest as he led a counterattack that would save what remained of his unit and accomplish its mission. Talk about a trial by fire, and Nick Bacon met it with something above and beyond courage that endless day.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.