MUST-SEE TV ALERT! PBS’ Medal of Honor
“We wear this medal to honor all of those who fought,” says Drew Dix – awarded the Medal of Honor for his combat actions during the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam – during PBS’ outstanding new documentary, Medal of Honor, which airs Wednesday, November 5, 2008, at 9:00 pm EDT.
They are united by a single fact: incredible courage in desperate, seemingly hopeless situations where they faced near-certain death.
Dix’s remark seems altogether fitting since, as another Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient, Bob Kerrey, reminds viewers, the awardees claim no monopoly on courage and valor – others served just as bravely, they say, but since countless other acts were not witnessed, their anonymous heroics went unrecognized. Therefore, they claim, their own award of the United States’ highest valor medal should really be seen as a tribute to all of America’s fighting men and women. That self-effacing trait – the quiet dignity of the testimonies of the 12 living Medal of Honor awardees who appear on camera in this outstanding production – is as moving and touching as it is revelatory of the character of these real heroes.
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In addition to Dix and Kerrey, the program presents the stories, including on-camera interviews, of living recipients Bud Day (Vietnam), Walter Ehlers (WWII), John Finn (WWII), Charles Liteky (Vietnam), Hiroshi Miyamura (Korean War), Alfred Rascon (Vietnam), Ron Rosser (Korean War), Tibor Rubin (Korean War), Mike Thornton (Vietnam), and Hershel Williams (WWII). It also recounts the exploits of six deceased recipients: Paul Smith (Iraq); Alvin York (WWI); Smedley Butler (2 awards – Vera Cruz and Haiti); Joshua Chamberlain (Civil War); William Harvey Carney (Civil War – first African American awardee); and Mary Edwards Walker (Civil War – only woman recipient).
Although the stories and backgrounds of these 18 individuals are extraordinarily diverse (including, among others, an illegal Mexican immigrant, a Holocaust survivor, a coal miner’s son with 16 siblings, a chaplain, a Japanese-American, and a former state governor and U. S. Senator) they are united by a single fact: incredible courage in desperate, seemingly hopeless situations where they faced near-certain death. Their survival against the odds, while performing acts of heroism and self-sacrifice, seem unbelievable – in fact, Navy SEAL Mike Thornton’s recommendation for the medal was nearly torpedoed by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Elmo Zumwalt who commented, “I can’t believe that anyone who did all this could possibly still be alive.” Yet, Thornton – and the others in this documentary – did indeed perform such unbelievable acts “above and beyond the call of duty.”
In addition to these compelling individual stories, the program presents the history of the Medal of Honor, from its 1862 creation during the Civil War (the Andrews “Great Locomotive Chase” Raiders received the first medals), through the Frontier Army and turn-of-the-century eras (when it was the only U.S. valor medal) to its preeminence today as the pinnacle of a pyramid of valor awards (additional heroism medals, such as the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, and Bronze Star, were created after 1917). Increasingly, program narrator Alfre Woodard notes, the Medal of Honor is awarded posthumously – none have been awarded to living recipients since the Vietnam War.
Produced and directed by Roger Sherman, the 90-minute documentary features the high production values and top-notch attention to detail that viewers have come to expect from PBS. Sherman explained why he chose to make this compelling program: “I’ve always been aware of [the Medal of Honor] as a profound, solemn symbol of military heroism, but like most people, I’ve never fully understood its history, how it’s bestowed, or even why certain people receive it and others don’t. I wanted to dig into that history, and in the process pay tribute to the valor the medal represents and explore the questions that awarding such a medal raises.” Sherman’s documentary accomplishes what he set out to do in an outstanding manner; yet, the program does not shy from controversy either.
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