November 8, 2006 Edition

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The price tag of freedom

(Note: A reprise of the following column has been requested to mark Veterans Day. The column originally ran on Nov. 4, 1998.)

By Joe "C.J." Plunkett
Guest columnist

With the arrival of Veterans Day, it is time once more to pay tribute to the many veterans of our armed forces who bravely fought in our nation's wars. Let us not forget those who are paralyzed in veterans' hospitals or at home, or those who are forever physically or emotionally scarred as a result of their sacrifice. Above all, may future generations remember that beneath the acres of white crosses and Stars of David across the world lie young men who made the supreme sacrifice that the flame of liberty and freedom may burn in perpetuity.

Be they black or white, Indian or Hispanic, Irish or Scottish, Jewish, Italian or English, they came from the cities, farms and villages that dot the hills and plains of America. In the war of freedom and liberty against tyranny, they proved that valor is not born of pedigree; it comes from the heart. They proved that honor is not descended from the bloodline of knights; it comes from the soul.

In researching the battles of the Pacific Theater in World War II, I discovered what many war veterans have always known that many of the greatest heroes of our wars came from the lower ranks. Many were young draftees or enlistees who had quietly lived in relative anonymity in their communities. Not only were there many cases of uncommon valor by the common soldier, but there were touching scenes of the heart which brought tears to the eyes and lumps to the throats of generals. Take the case of a young private, for example, who spontaneously read the 23rd Psalm, as he held the hand of his dying colonel on the battlefield. As many have said, there were no atheists in the foxholes.

Author Bill Ross, in his wonderful book entitled "Iwo Jima," relates the story of 21-year-old Private First Class Donald Ruhl, a Montana cattleman. In a one-man attack on an enemy blockhouse, he killed nine Japanese and single-handedly dragged a wounded Marine 40 yards to safety. He then spent the night alone in the gun pit, which he had captured by himself to make sure the gun could not be used against his unit. The next day he flung himself upon a grenade, which had fallen at the feet of his sergeant, saving the sergeant's life, sacrificing his own and earning himself the Medal of Honor, awarded posthumously.

I recall the case of 20-year-old Pharmacist's Mate Third Class Jack Williams from Harrison, Ark. He was a Navy Corpsman assigned to render battlefield medical aid to the 28th Marine Regiment in the Battle of Iwo Jima. In the savage battle, almost half of his battalion had been killed since hitting Green Beach. With his slight build, it almost seemed as though his satchel of bandages, morphine, sulfa and plasma was a heavy load as he scrambled from one wounded Marine to another, giving what aid he could under heavy enemy fire. On one trip, he had aided 14 of the wounded Marines, and five others were dead. While crouching to help yet another, a sniper's bullet tore into his abdomen and groin. Bleeding profusely, he finished bandaging his comrade before he attempted to halt the gushing blood from his belly wounds. Under heavy fire, he then went on to bandage and treat another. Grasping his abdomen with both arms, he started back to his lines for stretchers for the wounded the only chance to save them. A rifle bullet then pierced his chest, killing him. His deeds of valor are recorded in Navy history, and he was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. The ship "USS Jack Williams" was named for him. Upon its decommissioning, its bell was acquired by the citizens of Harrison and Boone County. It is now on display in the Boone County Courthouse.

Through victory and defeat, through blood and gore, our soldiers have proved that courage is the manna that nurtures men's souls. Our tribute to their selfless sacrifices and heroic deeds should remain ever present in our minds, lest future generations forget that our freedom has come with an expensive price tag. Our constitutional freedoms and Bill of Rights, for which our soldiers have fought and died, have created a shielding bastion, which has protected us from tyranny for almost a quarter millennium. We must diligently safeguard them against all enemies, both foreign and domestic.

(Source information for this article was obtained from the following books: "Iwo Jima,"by Bill Ross, Random House, New York, 1986; "History of the U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II," Historical Division, Headquarters, U.S, Marine Corps, 1971; and "Photographic History of the Civil War," Davis and Wiley, Cowles Magazines, Compilers, 1994.

Joe "C.J." Plunkett received a Ph.D. from Texas A&M University, and is a retired university professor. He is a resident of Black Rock.

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