33: Heroes in Plain Clothes

33: Heroes in Plain Clothes

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America

Heroes in Plain Clothes

National honor is national property of the highest value.

~President James Monroe

“I’ll warn you — he’s really rough around the edges. Gruff, with strong opinions. He’s had a hard life,” the visitor said. “But he’s special, you’ll see. And he’s wanted a tour of Gettysburg his whole life. I told him I knew just the person to show it to him.”

I wasn’t so sure.

The visitor was a man who had been on my tours of the Gettysburg battlefield before. As a licensed battlefield guide here, I’m part of a century-long tradition of showing visitors the fields where the bloodiest battle fought in the Western hemisphere took place — a battle that served as a major turning point in the American Civil War.

People of all ages visit us from across the country and around the world. They come from all walks of life, all levels of education. All of them hunger to understand how our country came to blows with itself not so long ago, and how we managed to go on and become world leaders today in spite of it.

My visitor pressed me again, saying his acquaintance was one of these people, despite his downtrodden appearance and difficult demeanor. I’d already done many tours that day, but something in my visitor’s eyes convinced me to take him and his friend on a tour.

“Great!” he exclaimed. “I’ll take you to the truck.”

We walked to the parking lot, where I met Medal of Honor recipient David Dolby. A big, burly fellow with a bushy gray beard, he smiled as he struggled out of the pick-up truck with his cane. His clothes had seen better days and his swollen, bruised feet were clad in flip-flops. But his sky-blue eyes twinkled, and from his neck hung the Medal of Honor suspended from a ribbon with its field of blue with white stars — absolutely spotless.

I knew that decoration immediately, because the Medal of Honor is a specialty of mine. It’s the highest military decoration a soldier can receive in the United States — most of us know it as the award for bravery “above and beyond.” Of the millions who have gone to war under our flag, fewer than 3,500 have received it. Dolby, who was awarded the medal for his actions in Vietnam, was the first recipient I’d ever met — the privilege of a lifetime.

As we drove through the battlefield, it became clear that Dolby knew a lot about Gettysburg but had never seen it before. Like so many of our visitors, he was astonished at its size and scope. He talked nonstop: about the horrors of Vietnam, how the government let the returning veterans down, how some officers didn’t know what they were doing, how the war destroyed his health. I didn’t expect the dour talk, but this man was about to teach me what real patriotism sounded like.

As we wound our way through sites like the Peach Orchard and Pickett’s Charge, his attitude changed. He couldn’t contain his admiration for the soldiers and the sacrifices they made to defend their ideals. At our stop in the Wheatfield — a bloody cauldron nicknamed the “Whirlpool of Death” by the soldiers who fought there — he tearfully said, “Good God, those boys were one of a kind.”

I reminded him that he’d seen some serious combat himself.

It was May 1966 near An Khe, and Specialist 4th Class Dolby was serving his first tour of duty when his platoon walked into an ambush. In a flash, the enemy killed six and wounded several others, including his platoon commander. In the four-hour battle, Dolby took command, carried comrades to safety under fire, assaulted enemy machine bunkers until he ran out of ammunition, and marked enemy positions so that air strikes could stop the attack once and for all. One of his wounded comrades, who was quoted in Dolby’s obituary, said that Dolby was “the bravest man I ever knew, maybe the bravest that ever lived. He saved all of us.” Dolby volunteered for four more tours of duty after that battle, which earned him the Medal of Honor. He also received more accolades: the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and the Purple Heart.

During our tour together, though, he brushed off his service and heroism. After the war, his fortunes sank; he fell on hard times. So when I had suggested that he, too, had fought bravely, he shook his head, looking down. “I’m just a normal person. I did what had to be done. But the ones who fought here…” his voice broke, then he composed himself and lifted his cane, gesturing across the Wheatfield, “They’re the brave ones. We walk in their shadows.”

We piled back into the pick-up and headed to the Devil’s Den. I pulled into a parking place, and noticed a familiar face getting out of a van beside us: Brigadier General Harold Nelson, a West Point graduate who had served in Vietnam, too — a prominent instructor of future officers and author of many texts. He waved to me and smiled, so I introduced him to Dolby.

As Dolby hobbled out and around the truck, I said, “David, this is General Harold Nelson.”

All the negative talk about his service melted away, duty and affection for his country emerging in its place, for not only did Dolby immediately come to attention as straight as his broken body allowed — but the retired general, upon seeing the medal around Dolby’s neck, assumed a ramrod straight posture as he saluted him slowly, reverently. There were large groups of tourists around us, and they stopped, spellbound at the sight.

One young man said to me, “What’s going on? I heard you say the one guy’s a general — why did he salute that shabby guy first?”

I told him that when members of the armed services see another wearing the Medal of Honor, it’s their duty to salute him or her first — no matter their rank — to show their regard for the medal-wearer’s bravery and patriotism. The boy said, “That’s cool. A brave guy doesn’t need a bunch of stars on a uniform to be brave — right?”

I’ll never forget that day or that moment. Two modern American men, two modern American warriors — ranks apart and thousands of miles from their battlefields — heroes in plain clothes standing on a long-ago American battlefield, bound by respect and a love of country for which they both, in their time and in their place, gave their all . . . for us.

~Renae H. MacLachlan

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