What does a true hero look like? On Thursday, Sept. 18, a small army of local schoolchildren filed into the Evergreen High School gymnasium to see one for themselves.
As they discovered, retired Army Maj. Bruce Crandall isn’t 10 feet tall, doesn’t speak in thunder and can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound. Nor does he have an NFL contract, a song in the Top 40, or a sure-fire plan for the economy.
A comfortable-looking man of 74, Crandall stands medium height, dresses neatly but casually, and has an entirely unremarkable, self-effacing manner of expression. If there was anything visibly distinctive about him at all, it was the tall black hat he wore — a poignant relic of the combat missions he flew over Vietnam as an Air Cavalry flight commander with the 229th Helicopter Assault Battalion.
Still, as one of only 100 living Americans to hold the Congressional Medal of Honor, Crandall’s a true hero, all right. To their credit, most of the kids packing the great room seemed to appreciate that fact.
“This is a huge event for Evergreen,” said EHS senior class president David Schultz. “Some kids might think this is just another assembly, but to me it’s a reminder that there are guys like him who’ve put their lives on the line for us. We’re lucky to have him here.”
Indeed, Schultz can thank kindly providence that Crandall and dozens of other true heroes happened to be in Denver for the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s annual convention, and that EHS happened to be one of only three Jeffco schools slated for a visit. But it was fast action and hard work that made Thursday’s assembly a morning to remember.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for the kids,” said assistant principal Bernie Hohman, who organized Crandall’s admirable hero’s welcome. “The lesson I hope they get is the importance of doing the right thing, of stepping up to help other people, of being a good person.”
Crandall’s address was scheduled for 8:30 a.m., but excitement started building long before that. Out front, the Stars and Stripes waved from the fully extended boom of Evergreen Fire/Rescue’s gleaming Tower No. 2, and county vehicles began showing up in company strength.
Inside, kids from Rocky Mountain Academy joined the EHS students in the bleachers, while two rows of folding chairs near the podium were reserved for local worthies, including state Sen. Dan Gibbs, Jefferson County Sheriff Ted Mink, and virtually every school principal from Bergen Park to Aspen Park. The color guard from Evergreen’s American Legion Post 2001 stood ready to greet the guest of honor in proper military style. Most significantly, two dozen seats directly in front of the podium were filled by distinguished area men wearing more than a half-century of bravery and patriotism on the breasts of their crisp uniform jackets.
“The Medal of Honor represents the ultimate in courage,” said Dick Over, who fought with Colorado’s own 10th Mountain Division during the punishing Aleutian campaign in World War II. “It’s always interesting to me to hear how other Americans have become heroes to those of us who also served.”
As a combat veteran, Over knows only too well that becoming a true hero has precious little to do with trumpets and ticker-tape, and that the Congressional Medal of Honor is a tribute that most soldiers hope they’ll never have a chance to earn. For starters, more than half of the 3,467 Americans so honored since President Abraham Lincoln launched the tradition in 1863 received their medal posthumously. For the rest, the phrase “conspicuous gallantry and valor during time of war” usually refers to the single most terrifying, desperate hours of their lives.
“I can tell you that everyone who wears this feels uncomfortable being introduced as Medal of Honor ‘winners,’ ” Crandall began. “We didn’t win anything. We are Medal of Honor recipients, and what we did to receive it was an uncomfortable experience.”
A transparent understatement that, but then Crandall’s remarks were not aimed to shock or upset, but to convey his own thoughts and best advice in the best way he knew how. For the next 80 minutes, Crandall touched on numerous topics using simple, direct language and easy good humor.
On a military career: “People think that all they teach is how to kill and fight. That’s nonsense. The doctor that fixed my back was a West Point graduate.”
On the personal rigors of a professional military: “You want to know the secret of a happy marriage? Marry a woman who won’t admit she made a mistake.”
On the Vietnam War: “What most young people don’t understand is that we were in Vietnam to stop the spread of communism, not to beat the North Vietnamese. The political goal was not necessarily compatible with the military goal. We achieved the political goal, but did not achieve the military goal. We don’t want to do that again.”
On his Air Cavalry unit: “They called me ‘the Old Man,’ and I wasn’t an old man. It was a sign of respect, so I loved being called that. We trained together for a year and a half before we got to Vietnam. My biggest stateside concern was safety. Combat changed everything. My biggest concern was my people. They were like my children. When they had a problem at home, I had a problem at home. It’s something you can’t really understand unless you’ve been there. I lost four guys, missing in action. The hardest thing I did over there was writing the letters to their families.”
On his work as a story adviser during the filming of “We Were Soldiers,” a 2002 Vietnam War movie starring Mel Gibson: “It was about 75 percent real and 25 percent Hollywood. And that’s pretty good.”
On self-sacrifice: “They want us to say something about ‘sacrifice,’ but I prefer the word ‘service.’ We don’t necessarily need to sacrifice things in our lives, but we all need to be of service.”
On the current fashion of mandatory volunteerism: “Patriotism can’t be taught. This is, without a doubt, the greatest country that’s ever been conceived. If you don’t believe you’re living in the greatest country in the world, and that your country deserves your support, and that you owe something to your country, nobody can teach it to you.”
On personal responsibility and family: “You each have a duty to look after those who came before you, and those that came after you. All of you have all the benefits that we — the group ahead of you — can give you.”
And, appropriately enough, on the nature of heroism: “Courage runs through all of us, and you don’t know what courage is until it’s been tested. As humans, we have a tremendous capacity to do what’s right when the time comes.”
Curiously — or maybe not — he said next to nothing about the actions for which he received a grateful nation’s highest honor. On Nov. 14, 1965, Crandall’s flight of 16 helicopters was ferrying troops from a base in Plei Me, Vietnam, to a landing zone in the La Drang Valley. By the fourth lift, the enemy had targeted the landing zone, and the unarmed aircraft began taking fire. By the fifth, the shooting had grown so intense that Crandall’s group commander suspended further flight operations. Rather than abandon the besieged soldiers to their fate, Crandall moved his base of operations closer to the landing zone and — at appalling personal risk — continued flying desperately needed supplies and ammunition in, and flying wounded soldiers out.
“Despite the fact that the landing zone was still under relentless enemy fire, Major Crandall landed and proceeded to supervise the loading of seriously wounded soldiers aboard his aircraft,” reads the official account. “Major Crandall’s voluntary decision to land under the most extreme fire instilled in the other pilots the will and spirit to land their own aircraft, and in the ground forces the realization that they would be re-supplied and that friendly wounded would be promptly evacuated. That day he completed a total of 22 flights, most under intense enemy fire, retiring from the battlefield only after all possible service had been rendered to the Infantry battalion. Major Crandall’s daring acts of bravery and courage in the face of an overwhelming and determined enemy are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.”
“My wingman and I flew 14-and-a-half hours, that day, 12 of them after the med-evacs refused to fly,” was about all Crandall would say on the subject. “If we didn’t go, nobody would go.”
About 9:45, the kids gave Crandall a hero’s ovation and headed off to less dramatic studies. In the parking lot out front, a line of yellow buses was discharging swarms of Evergreen Middle School students, because Crandall’s mission to Evergreen was still only half done.
It was hard to nail down exactly what the EMS kids’ older counterparts gathered from the event and, like so much that we learn as children, it may be years before the kids are able to appreciate the significance of what they heard. For one action-movie-steeped young fellow, the Medal of Honor recipient’s wartime piloting experiences left a strong impression.
“I liked his call-sign, ‘Snake,’ ” he said, incorrectly remembering Crandall’s actual wartime radio call-sign, Ancient Serpent Six. “It sounds kind of cool.”
On the other hand, junior Emma Stewart might have come away with something closer to the message Crandall hoped to send.
“I liked what he said about duty, and doing what’s right,” she said thoughtfully. “You shouldn’t feel obligated to do something; you should do it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Spoken like a true hero.