HISTORY IN THE ROUND: A tour guide speaks inside the United States Capitol rotunda. This and other points of interest draw millions of people to Washington, D.C., each year. Many visitors come to honor our nation's past and those who have fought to preserve its present and future.
Brooks Kraft

MEDAL OF HONOR recipients gather in Washington, D.C. — where heroism is enshrined and celebrated — on a mission to use their awards as beacons of courage for Americans in or out of uniform.

Bruce Crandall, seated in 16D, unzips a small brown carry-on bag and withdraws a small white dog. He holds it close to his face and whispers to it reassuringly before placing the pooch around his neck, where other passengers would place a neck pillow. “This is where he usually goes when we drive,” he says. “He’s an excellent traveler; never says a peep.”

It’s hard to imagine this man in 1965, a steel-jawed commander of the 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) during the Vietnam War. The helicopter pilot led a group of 16 UH-1 Hueys into a hail of enemy fire to reach the landing zone of Ia Drang Valley. At stake were the lives of isolated, outnumbered Army soldiers under siege from North Vietnamese troops. Crandall delivered ammunition against the ground commander’s orders (due to heavy enemy attacks), and he — along with his wingman and fellow Medal of Honor recipient, the late Ed Freeman — evacuated some 70 wounded soldiers even though that wasn’t part of his mission.

It’s no surprise that the dog nestled comfortably­ around Crandall’s neck is named Huey.

In addition to the pup, there’s a brass-and-bronze medal on a blue ribbon dangling from Crandall’s neck. It’s the nation’s highest award for bravery in combat, the Medal of Honor. On any other flight, Crandall’s award would be unique. On this flight — a 737 ­charter flight from New York City to Washington, D.C., sponsored by American ­Airlines — he’s just one hero among many. There are 20 other Medal of Honor recipients (as a rule, they never call themselves “winners”) on board, heading to the nation’s capital to commemorate National Medal of Honor Day.

Seated in front of him is Jack Jacobs, dozing serenely behind his spectacles. This polite, diminutive man is the frequent target of jokes about his height from his fellow Medal of Honor recipients. But in 1968, as a first lieutenant in Vietnam, Jacobs saved — and took — human lives during the aftermath of an ambush of his comrades. Wounded multiple times, Jacobs fought off attackers, called in airstrikes, dragged weapons to firing positions and rescued other injured soldiers.

Medal of Honor recipients are more than warriors. In combat zones, brave acts are almost routine: walking on a patrol, taking off in a helicopter from a forward operating base, helping the wounded — all of these things take enormous courage. Medal of Honor recipients have gone further. Their citations all describe decisive moments — choices that go beyond professionalism, training and ego — when they could have honorably stayed out of harm’s way but did not. There have been 3,461 Medal of Honor recipients, all men except for the late Civil War surgeon and prisoner of war Mary Walker. Only 79 are living today.

The surviving recipients, referred to by many as national treasures, still work in the national interest, using their compelling histories to inspire greatness in a new crop of veterans. They have also created a medal
of their own to award to civilians who have put their fellow man ahead of themselves.

“Every recipient will tell you the same thing: They don’t wear the medal to honor themselves,” says Hal Fritz, president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, who earned his medal in 1969. “They wear it as messengers.”

It should be no surprise that these distinguished individuals seem so ordinary; they are. Part of their message, it turns out, is that even extraordinary displays of courage can spring from anyone.