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The real heroes of war just don't talk about it


A suburban judge is being bashed from all directions because he falsely claimed to have been awarded the Medal of Honor.

He contritely says he did it during a period of his life when his brains were addled by booze.

Whatever his reasons, I don't know why so many people are upset. Telling tall war stories has always been a popular pastime among some veterans -- especially those who never heard anything louder than a drill sergeant's voice.

A pretty good measure of how much or how little danger a guy faced was how much or how little he talked about it.

Those who talk the most usually did the least. And those who did the most say the least.

A few years ago, when there was a big gathering and parade of Vietnam vets in Chicago, several of them wound up in a bar near the newspapers.

One of them, in old Army fatigues and a scraggly beard, loudly went on about all the hell he had been through, the slacker hippies who had taunted him upon his return, and the nightmares he still had every night.

A very big guy who had said almost nothing, finally asked the beard what outfit he had been in.

The beard tossed out an answer.

The big guy nodded and said: "Oh, yeah, you guys were in that operation at . . ." And he gave the name of a Vietnam jungle or village or whatever it was. "Your outfit got torn up bad there. But you did a heck of a job."

The beard nodded solemnly. "Yeah, that was a tough one, a real tough one."

The big guy laughed and said: "Hey, you phony, there's no such place. I made that up. You're full of . . ."

The beard was out the door.

Then there was the downstate Illinois politician who had actually won the Medal of Honor for singlehandedly taking on a bunch of German tanks and troops.

He not only didn't talk about it, but when I once wrote about the specifics of his amazing heroism, he got so angry he threatened to punch me out.

Some time later, I was talking to a judge who was a lifelong friend of the hero-politician. When I expressed awe at his exploits and puzzlement at his anger, the judge said:

"I'll tell you why he reacted that way. You didn't know the whole story of how he won the medal. The night before that battle, his outfit liberated a village where they found a big supply of cognac. He got drunk as hell. He was still loaded during the battle. He would have never done all that crazy stuff if he was sober."

And I remember meeting a man who was one of my heroes: Col. Frank Gabreski, one of the leading fighter pilot aces of the air war in Europe.

He landed at our base for a stopover and my job was to bring him and his luggage to the transient officers quarters.

When we got to his rooms, I put his luggage down and started to say something like: "Colonel, sir, I'd just like to say that I've read about what you did and you are . . ."

I didn't finish. He glared at the floor, glared at me, and said: "Get somebody in here to clean this dump up -- now!"

So I learned a valuable lesson from my elders who had been in World War II about talking or clamming up.

When the Korean War ended, I came back without having done any harm to the enemy. And they were nice enough to have done nothing more than give me a few nervous moments.

"How was it over there?" a friend or a relative would ask.

While squinting into the distance, I'd take a deep breath, exhale slowly, and wearily shake my head.

Then I'd rub my eyes and quietly say: "Look, I'd rather not talk about it, OK? I just don't want to talk about it."

"Sure, sure," they'd nervously say, "I understand. Just take it easy."

So the judge didn't have to go to all the bother of buying a medal and trying to get a hero's license plate.

The old "I don't want to talk about it" trick worked every time. And if you could master the distant squint, young ladies were always impressed. There was something to be said for being


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