Pilot story and photos by Susan Schell
The Congressional Medal of Honor is the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a member of the United States military.
Of the 3,458 Medals of Honor that have been given out in this country's history, only 139 of its recipients are alive today.
Two of them visited Brookings-Harbor High School last week.
Col. James E. Swett and 1st Lt. James A. Taylor appeared at a special assembly to share their experiences with the students.
Col. Swett served in the United States Marine Corp Reserve, Marine Fighting Squadron 2221, in World War II.
Lt. Taylor fought in the U.S. Army American Division West of Que Son in Vietnam.
They were invited to the school at the request of Tom Casalini, author of a newly published book, "Ordinary Heroes."
Casalini spent a year traveling throughout the country visiting the remaining Medal of Honor winners. His book is a reflection of his personal experiences with the heroes he met during that time.
The book includes interesting portraits of these people, captured on film by Casalini himself, a veteran photographer of 30 years.
Casalini's work is nationally recognized. He has photographed well-known celebrities and worked for commercial clients such as Chevrolet, Timex and "Life Magazine."
At the assembly, Casalini said pursuing these decorated heroes became a personal journey for him.
"It refreshed and renewed my enthusiasm for my life work," he said.
"It re-energized my love of photography and became a spiritual journey. I wanted to look through the lens of my camera and find truth. Truth is what these individuals gave me."
The author recounted meeting James Elliott Williams, the "most decorated man in the history of the U.S. Navy."
"He was so down to earth. You could be standing next to one of these men at the grocery store and you would never realize the courage they've been recognized for."
While searching for a title for his book, Casalini was struck by the link between heroes and everyday, ordinary people. Heroes were just ordinary people doing their duty.
"Everyone has their own heroes. And everyone has the opportunity to become heroes," he said.
"On Sept. 11, ordinary people became ordinary heroes."
When Col. Swett approached the podium, he received a standing ovation from the students and teachers in the room.
"I'm still kicking," the World War II veteran said.
Swett recounted some of his experiences during the war in a humorous way that made people laugh.
Lt. Taylor, a Vietnam veteran, was more serious and spoke to the audience more directly.
"Whether you'll be a successful person or a failure depends on you," he said.
"Education is your key to success."
Lt. Taylor pointed out the importance of going to school every day, whether they felt like it or not.
"Maybe the teachers feel the same way, but they come to school for you," he said.
"And when you're at home, think about the people around you...because without them you're nothing. You may think you're really something right now, but you're not."
Lt. Taylor emphasized the need for students to take responsibility for their actions.
"You have to make it happen," he said. "Don't make excuses for your failures. But don't be afraid to make mistakes.
You can turn a positive into a negative. Throw away the words I can't.'"
After the assembly, the war heroes met with small groups of students in the high school library. This setting offered a more controlled and intimate atmosphere.
The students were allowed to ask the guests questions personally.
Student: Why are your (Col. Swett and Lt. Taylor) medals different?
Col. Swett: Mine is for the Marine Corp Coast Guard and his is Army.
My medal displays the Greek goddess Minerva repulsing evil. It is surrounded by 13 stars representing the original colonies.
Student: Should we go to war with Iraq?
Lt. Taylor: I oppose any government that oppresses its people. Personally, I don't want to go to war.
I would surround the city of Baghdad and cut off their lights, food and water supply.
I'd tell the people, when you hand me this guy (Saddam Hussein), you'll get your food and water. I'd put the responsibility on them but if we had to, we could zap him right now. He's a punk.
Teacher: What do you think about reinstating the draft?
Lt. Taylor: I think it's a wonderful idea but it's different now. We are so high-tech, you have to have skills. Every trooper from the ground up must be computer literate.
Col. Swett: You fly airplanes with computers now.
Student: Why did we fight in Vietnam?
Lt. Taylor: The love of this country drove me to fight. I wanted my children and my grandchildren to have the same freedom I enjoyed.
Student: Did you ever regret having anyone die at your hands?
Lt. Taylor: I respected my enemy. They were doing their job and I was doing mine. We never left a body on the battlefield, even it was an enemy.
Col. Swett: We didn't have any respect for the Japanese 'until the war was over. Then we were friends.
Student: Do you ever have flashbacks?
Col. Swett: Constantly. Several come back regularly. We had eye-to-eye contact (with the enemy) in their airplanes, knowing full well they were coming at us trying to kill us.
Lt. Taylor: I never want to forget.
Student: All we know (about) Vietnam is what we've seen in movies. What was it really like?
Lt. Taylor: We lived like nomads. We had no facilities. We got a hot meal every once in a while we had good days and bad days
Student: Out of all the war movies, which is the realest one you've seen?
Lt. Taylor: I've never gone to a movie about any war. They don't depict what really happened. They make up stories and glorify them to make money.
Col. Swett: In "Pearl Harbor" there were a lot of things wrong. In the front part, they show the Japanese bombers flying low in-between the battle ships. That never happened.
Student: Would you go to a war movie if it was (depicted correctly?)
Lt. Taylor: I can't be in a dark room surrounded by strangers I can't pay attention to the movie.
Col. Swett: So many of the movies they put out are so filled with sex and violence they are garbage.