Of Arms and the Man

Paul Greenberg

7/29/2010 2:22:23 PM - 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.

The formal words of the official citation, marching across the printed page as if in full review, tell of what he did one endless day in Vietnam:

"For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. S/Sgt. Bacon distinguished himself while serving as a squad leader with the 1st Platoon, Company B, during an operation west of Tam Ky. When Company B came under fire from an enemy bunker line to the front, S/Sgt. Bacon quickly organized his men and led them forward in an assault. He advanced on a hostile bunker and destroyed it with grenades. As he did so, several fellow soldiers including the 1st Platoon leader, were struck by machine gun fire and fell wounded in an exposed position forward of the rest of the platoon. S/Sgt. Bacon immediately assumed command of the platoon and assaulted the hostile gun position, finally killing the enemy gun crew in a single-handed effort.

"When the 3d Platoon moved to S/Sgt. Bacon's location, its leader was also wounded. Without hesitation S/Sgt. Bacon took charge of the additional platoon and continued the fight. In the ensuing action he personally killed 4 more enemy soldiers and silenced an antitank weapon. Under his leadership and example, the members of both platoons accepted his authority without question. Continuing to ignore the intense hostile fire, he climbed up on the exposed deck of a tank and directed fire into the enemy position while several wounded men were evacuated.

"As a result of S/Sgt. Bacon's extraordinary efforts, his company was able to move forward, eliminate the enemy positions, and rescue the men trapped to the front. S/Sgt. Bacon's bravery at the risk of his life was in the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, his unit, and the U.S. Army."

When pressed, Nick Bacon would tell the story of that day -- August 26, 1968 -- in his own way:

"I got my boot heel shot off, I got holes in my canteens, I got my rifle grip shot up. I got shrapnel holes in my camouflage covers, and bullets in my pot. A bullet creased the edge of it, tore the lining off."

Sergeant Bacon also got the Medal of Honor, presented at the White House in 1969, in addition to his other decorations, among them the Distinguished Service Cross, the Legion of Merit, two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. After two tours in Vietnam (he tried for a third but was turned down) he would retire from active duty in 1984 with the rank of first sergeant.

First Sergeant Bacon, first in more ways than one, would go on to serve more than a decade as his state's director of Veterans Affairs. Anything and everything he could do for his old comrades-in-arms, and those to come, he did. He was not just the face of Veterans Affairs in Arkansas, but its embodiment.

Some men are tested by one single, exhilarating day lived at high pitch, others over the course of a lifetime of day-in, day-out service to others. Nick Bacon passed both tests, excelled at them, yet somehow remained just Nick Bacon, whom everyone loved.

In the end, what needs to be said, and isn't often enough, is simply:

Thank you for your service.