Colonel Walter Marm, retired, who received the Medal of Honor in 1966, knows about courage. He was the young lieutenant who charged a North Vietnamese machine gun fortified in a rock-hard anthill to help rescue the lost platoon in the Battle of Ia Drang in November 1965. But when enemy fire tore through his jaw, Mr. Marm had to rely upon the heroism of helicopter pilots to get him out of harm's way.
When I spoke to Colonel Marm on Saturday morning, he was getting ready to head to Washington, where President Bush presented the Medal of Honor at the White House yesterday to the retired lieutenant colonel, Bruce Crandall, who served as a life line to American forces at the battle.
Colonel Crandall, who was then a major, was the tip of the spear for a new American way of war. He served as a helicopter pilot in the reconstituted 1st Cavalry Division.
In what was a grand experiment to expand the mobility of America's armed forces, military planners transformed a defunct traditional cavalry unit into a symbol of the country's high-tech struggle against communism in South Vietnam, albeit one that still needed pilots to put their lives on the line.
The bloody confrontation at the Ia Drang Valley in November 1965, was relatively unique for Vietnam. The North Vietnamese committed more than 2,000 of their best soldiers against a freshly minted outnumbered unit of 450 American soldiers. The battle has been the subject of a best-selling book, "We Were Soldiers Once … And Young" as well as a 2002 film, "We Were Soldiers."
A terrain of tall grass served as the backdrop for this battle. If ever the newfangled ideas of air warfare needed to succeed, it was when the Americans found themselves under continuous attack facing a larger, disciplined enemy.
Colonel Crandall, as well as another helicopter pilot, Captain Ed Freeman, decided against policy, to risk the dangerous flight to the battlefield to deliver supplies and ammunition and to evacuate the wounded. According to the Department of Defense, Colonel Crandall supervised 14 helicopter landings in the midst of extreme and concentrated enemy fire.
"They were takin' bullets," Colonel Marm says of Colonel Crandall and Captain Freeman. "The biggest concern was of the helicopters getting shot down." Ed Freeman, who retired as a major, received the Medal of Honor in 2001.
The explanation of what prompts the kind of heroism demonstrated by the Medal of Honor recipients defies easy understanding. Mr. Marm led his men to a well-defended solid rock anthill. He turned to his soldiers, told them not to shoot him by accident in the furious firefight, and decided to charge the enemy emplacement by himself.
Lieutenant General Harold Moore, now retired, and Joseph Galloway describe his actions as follows in "We Were Soldiers Once … And Young ": "He charged through the fire, tossed a hand grenade behind the hill, and then cleaned up the survivors with his M-16 rifle." What made him do it? "It's kind of instinct. We were always told to lead by example. Being young and having had a little bit of combat before that, you think you're infallible."
In this case Colonel Crandall had had months of training with the men who relied upon him for help. That bond helped spur the dangerous helicopter landings that saved the lives of 70 wounded soldiers and enabled the soldiers to remain supplied and armed, which saved the entire unit. "These guys had been working with the helicopter pilots all through the test phase," Colonel Marm says.
The legacy of the Battle of Ia Drang resonated throughout the Vietnam War. The American military, thanks to the exploits of helicopter pilots such as Colonel Crandall, gained a strengthened confidence in what air cavalry could do — making helicopters the "jeep of Vietnam."
The loss of 837 North Vietnamese soldiers and a greater number of them wounded, caused the North Vietnamese to forego conventional attacks on the Americans for much of the following decade.
Today, it's easy to envision the ignoble American evacuation from Saigon in 1975 and perceive the entire struggle in Vietnam as a sweeping defeat. But think about that 10-year delay, to which the American soldiers who fought and died at Ia Drang contributed. During that time, neighboring countries, such as Thailand and Malaysia, were able to strengthen themselves and stabilize.
Aside from Cambodia, which was a victim of North Vietnamese aggression, the feared Domino Theory, the idea that the fall of one pro-Western government would be followed by a rapid chain of others in Southeast Asia, never took place in part because of the American effort in Vietnam. It didn't look like a victory back then, but, in the long view, history sees things differently.
In Massachusetts earlier this month, a horse-drawn hearse carried the flag-draped casket of another helicopter pilot, a casualty of today's war. Captain Jennifer Harris of the United States Marine Corps was brought to her final resting place in the historic Swampscott Cemetery.
Right now, it's easy to see Iraq as a cauldron of chaos. But it can take years to recognize the significance of courage, duty, and sacrifice. Long wars are hard wars, old soldiers like to say. It took many years for Colonel Crandall to be properly recognized. In time, we will acknowledge the true courage and import of today's heroes.
Mr. Gitell (gitell.com) is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.