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The Charge for Teddy

The Medal of Honor, the military's highest decoration, was denied Theodore Roosevelt. But some hope to change that in time for the centennial of his valor on San Juan Hill.

January 16, 1998|GREGG ZOROYA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — There is little dispute about the valor displayed on that steamy afternoon in the Cuban jungles 100 years ago this summer. Rough Rider Theodore Roosevelt, in his tailored Brooks Brothers uniform, his slouch hat trailing an eye-popping polka-dotted scarf, first led his dismounted cavalry through withering fire from Spanish troops to the crest of Kettle Hill.

"I waved my hat and went up with a rush," the "Bully" president later wrote.

One of the first to reach the top, Roosevelt killed a Spanish soldier with his revolver and discovered, in his own words, "what it was like when the wolf rises in the heart." Minutes later, he plunged on toward enemy-occupied San Juan Hill nearby, realizing midway that he was nearly alone after having forgotten to sound the charge. Rushing back to rally his troops, Roosevelt renewed the assault and stormed his way into history.

Critics said it was politics that denied Roosevelt the Medal of Honor for his heroism during the Spanish-American War in 1898: backbiting members of President William McKinley's administration who were eager to put the popular (and ambitious) "Teddy" in his place.

But in 1998, politics weigh heavily in favor of the 26th president. There is a renewed campaign to have the nation's highest military decoration awarded posthumously to T.R., whose place in history has probably never been higher.

In the U.S. House, a bill urging President Clinton to award the medal has 158 Democratic and Republican sponsors--including Majority Leader Dick Armey and California Republicans Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach, Randy "Duke" Cunningham of Escondido, San Clemente's Ron Packard and, before his death, Sonny Bono. They are led by Pennsylvania Democrat and former U.S. Marine Paul McHale, who says his fascination with history and a prolific reading of Roosevelt biographies triggered his actions.

"My goal is to correct an injustice," McHale says. "Anyone who seriously studies [Roosevelt's] leadership in battle must conclude that he was an extraordinarily brave man who was under constant enemy fire and whose personal leadership led to a decisive victory."

Moreover, the Army has reopened its investigation into recommending the award on the request of the Theodore Roosevelt Assn., which hopes to see the medal bestowed in time for the July 1 centennial of Roosevelt's heroics. "Justice wasn't done in 1898. So why not now?" says John A. Gable, the group's executive director. "History is open-ended."

The action comes at a time when the wreath-designed medallion, which hangs around the neck with blue ribbon, has attained near-sacred status in the military since the litany of U.S. wartime engagements has grown fewer and less lethal. Created during the Civil War, the medal was in some cases arbitrarily awarded until World War I, when the standards were stiffened.

"The criteria is so cast now that it takes a near-Herculean feat," says Gerard White, former director of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

The heroics of Peter Lemon are a good example. When his U.S. Army fire support base in South Vietnam came under attack on April 1, 1970, Lemon's actions included killing every enemy soldier around his defensive post, carrying a wounded comrade to safety, returning to his exposed position through a hail of enemy fire, launching a one-man counterattack that drove the enemy back and, standing atop an exposed embankment, pouring machine-gun fire into enemy positions. All this despite being wounded three times.

Yet even for Lemon, the award seems bigger than life.

"Most of the recipients feel that the medal is far beyond who we are as human beings and sometimes quite a heavy burden to bear," Lemon says.

When Teddy Roosevelt's eldest son, Theodore Roosevelt Jr., was awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor as the only general officer leading the breakout from Omaha Beach on D-Day, 1944, Hollywood cast Henry Fonda to portray him in "The Longest Day." (T.R. Jr. died of a heart attack three days after D-Day.)

Since the Vietnam War--in which there were 239 recipients, most of them killed in action--only one incident has warranted the honor: a gallant, but doomed, attempt by two Army Rangers to rescue the crew of a downed U.S. Army helicopter during hostilities in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993. Both soldiers, Master Sgt. Gary I. Gordon and Sgt. 1st Class Randall D. Shughart, were killed. Each was awarded the medal posthumously.

Today, there are only 166 living Medal of Honor recipients.

White, for one, says he is not sure Teddy Roosevelt is worthy of such heroic company. "I just don't see any validity in it," he says. "Maybe I'm totally wrong, but to me it seems more like a political thing [in granting the medal to Roosevelt] than a military thing."

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