WHEN OLD MILL High School junior Christopher Osborn read an article on the front page of The Sun about a Vietnam veteran who had just received the congressional Medal of Honor, he knew he'd found the subject for his honors U.S. history class project.
The article told the story of Army Spec. 4 Alfred Rascon, who had demonstrated exceptional valor in Southeast Asia in protecting men in his unit under heavy fire from the enemy.
Students in Amanda Kirby's honors class study American history from the Civil War to the present; the spring semester is covering the period from 1919 to 2000.
Her instructions to Chris and his classmates for their spring project were both intimidating and challenging. They were to pick a topic in U.S. history after World War I, prepare a research paper on background information, formulate questions and interview someone with personal experience to produce an oral history.
They didn't know which to dread most: interviewing a stranger or giving an oral report about the interview to the class.
"They weren't too enthusiastic at first, even reluctant," Kirby says, "but once they started the interviews, a lot of them got excited. The students began to realize that you can't ask your textbook questions, but you can ask people questions. They came back to class saying, 'Guess what I found out?' "
Diane and Pete Osborn, Chris' parents, were more than happy with the 17-year-old's choice of subject, because they wanted him to understand a period in U.S. history that had had a major impact on their lives.
"The Vietnam era was a period where Pete and I were active," Mrs. Osborn said. "I was working in D.C. and very much attuned to history. As conservatives, we were against the demonstrators and for the troops, but for the first time, we stopped to question what the federal government was doing.
"My husband and I both had friends killed or maimed in Vietnam. Some friends who were exposed to Agent Orange later had malformed babies."
For a youngster raised in a patriotic atmosphere, the notion of interviewing a military hero was the most important event to happen to him in school -- aside from making the varsity tennis team and occupying first place with his partner in the school's doubles standings.
Considering it "a huge event in my life," Chris looked forward to getting to know Rascon, who lives with his wife and two children in Columbia.
"He was real easy to talk to," Chris said. "He showed me pictures from the ceremony; he was real laid-back." Nervous before their meeting, Chris appreciated that Rascon was eager to talk, but he could hardly have anticipated the stories Rascon had to tell.
The day for which Rascon was honored with a medal -- March 16, 1966 -- reads like a movie script. Assigned as a medic to a reconnaissance platoon of an airborne infantry brigade, he risked his life repeatedly to retrieve wounded comrades and their equipment.
Under constant fire, he used his body to protect injured comrades from gunfire and grenades. Although he received numerous wounds in the face and legs, he would not stop his rescue efforts. Only after being readied for evacuation did he allow himself to be given aid.
Asked about his bravery, Rascon replied simply, "It was my job."
Because of the way he did that job, Rascon's fellow soldiers nominated him for a Medal of Honor. He received the Silver Star instead, with the push for greater honor -- the nation's highest for military valor -- apparently lost in red tape.
His fellow soldiers, in more recent times, waged a battle of several years to win a waiver of the three-year time limitation on awarding the Medal of Honor for Rascon's deeds of three decades past.
On Feb. 8, Rascon was given the medal by President Clinton at the White House and inducted into the Medal of Honor Hall of Heroes at the Pentagon.
A career military man who serves as inspector general of Selective Service in Arlington, Va., Rascon, the son of migrant farm workers, grew up around military bases in California and enlisted at age 17.
The young soldier volunteered for the Medical Corps and was part of the first U.S. deployment to Vietnam. Rascon told Chris that his troop defended an area of jungle approximately the size of a football field. All the fighting he experienced took place in that spot.
While overseas, Rascon wasn't aware of Americans at home protesting the war. But he couldn't miss the civilian and military photographers who seemed to be everywhere taking pictures. It's these old photos, his mementos of war, that are spread across the table when he talks about his experiences in Vietnam.
"I can understand his enlisting," Chris says. "What he did was so courageous, but I don't know if I could do the same."
With military service out of the question because of a medical condition, Chris has ambitions to study English or journalism at the University of Maryland, where his brother, Bryan, is a junior. "I want to be a movie or book critic," Chris says. "I'd also like to learn to be a pilot."
The Medal of Honor recipient had some parting words for his young interviewer, writing them on an autographed picture: "Remember, it is the love of country that has lighted and keeps glowing the holy fire of freedom. Patriotism!"