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North Neighborhoods
In Ross, medal recipients tell what makes a hero

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

By Michael J. Dongilli

They're soldiers whose heroism would make anyone stand at attention. And for their efforts they have received the country's highest award for military valor, the Medal of Honor.

Photos of 48 medal recipients are displayed at Ross Park Mall in a traveling tribute based on a book titled "Ordinary Heroes," co-authored by Timothy Wallis and photographer Tom Casalini. The interactive exhibit arrived at the mall last Wednesday -- the fourth stop in a nine-city tour sponsored by mall owner Simon Property Group. It will stay until Saturday, moving next to Chicago and finishing Oct. 23 in Indianapolis.

The road show honors our country's most glorified freedom fighters, but it also carries a deeper message conveyed by the book's title and portrayed by the collection of heroes.

Two medal recipients, Ronald Rosser and Gary Littrell, accompanied Casalini at the book signing that kicked off the exhibit. Aging, yet still standing tall in accomplishment, both veterans trumpeted their war memories with a tenet that can be applied in all walks of life -- just do the right thing.

The medal's gold star, suspended from a blue and star-filled ribbon, rested impressively on their chests. It was probably the first time that many in the crowd had seen one.

The tales of both men emphasized that a hero is not defined by a mere emblem hanging around his neck. A hero reigns through the unwavering respect he holds for the life, love and dignity of his fellow man.

"I was with a company of men and we all did the same thing. I just ended up with the highest decoration," said Rosser, 72, who spent his entire career in the Army. A corporal in Korea, he single-handedly charged a hill three times to kill enemy soldiers while dragging back to safety 12 of his injured men. But, he said, that effort wasn't the bravest act that day, Jan. 12, 1952.

"That day on the battlefield, this one young man was seriously wounded, shot through the chest. To say he was scared was giving him a break. The boy was terrified. He thought he was going to die, he thought he would freeze to death and worst of all, he thought he was going to be left behind. [After] I went out and got him, I talked to him very quietly. I told him I would get him out, 'I promise I'll get you out of here.' But it was tough. Everyone was dead or wounded, but we were still fighting."

Rosser said he glanced up between trips down the hill and saw what was the most courageous sight in his life. "This young soldier ... had come out. Still under fire, I saw him carrying [another] young soldier down that mountain. To me, that's bravery. I've never been wounded that bad, I've never been scared that bad, but when I think of bravery, I always think of this guy, not me."

Three years ago, Casalini was questioning the worth of what he was doing professionally. The majority of his 30 years in photography had been rooted in advertising, where he shot for giants in the consumer wars -- McDonald's, Timex, John Deere, Chevrolet. Portraits of chief executive officers filled his portfolio. Casalini, who lives outside Indianapolis, prayed for direction and waited.

"A local advertising agency who never uses me called and asked me to do a commemorative poster for the dedication of a memorial in Indianapolis that was built to [recognize] all our Medal of Honor recipients," he said. "And to tell you the honest-to-God's truth, up until the day I received that assignment, I had no idea what the Medal of Honor was."

He soon learned the history and significance of the medal, and it inspired him to write to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society proposing his idea for a book.

"Seventy-two hours later, I was off and running. They approved the project. To me, it's just absolutely phenomenal because I had no idea where I was going. I was just listening to the voice inside and trusting it," he said.

He has traveled to 52 cities to photograph the recipients, and he has listened to the powerful feelings expressed by those visiting the exhibit.

Many have told him about relatives who also served the country and, even though they didn't receive a medal, deserve to be up there, too. "And you know, if you walked up to a Medal of Honor recipient, there's not one who wouldn't say [they're] 100 percent correct," Casalini said.

"You talk to these recipients and what's important to them is not what they did on the battlefield, it's about people in their lives who gave them strength."

Like the story of medal recipient John Finn, whose wife loved to dance but who was eventually confined to a wheelchair. At a Medal of Honor social function, she longed to get on the floor once more. Another medal recipient, Mike Thornton, decided to fulfill that wish.

"He grabbed a tablecloth, made a sling out of it, picks her up out of the wheelchair and puts her in it and takes her out on the dance floor, where he dances with her for half an hour," Casalini said. "Now, John Finn says that's the kind of character and commitment to others that makes 'Big Mike' a more important hero to him than anything he may have done in combat."

The exhibit at Ross Park Mall is across from a kiosk stocked with prints of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and other stars of music, stage and sports -- role models for many of today's teens.

Littrell finds that fascination disheartening, and he tries to discourage it in his frequent talks at schools. "Congress, by signing a general order, declared me a hero, but every young man and woman can be my hero by knowing what's right and what's wrong," he said. "And do what's right. Don't succumb to peer pressure. If it's wrong, stay away from it."

On April 4, 1970, during the Vietnam War, Littrell and four other American advisers led a battalion of 473 Vietnamese Rangers, establishing a defensive position on a hill at Kontum Province. Waking the next morning, they found themselves surrounded by 5,000 North Vietnamese. During the first day, the other advisers were either killed or seriously wounded, leaving the command to Littrell. The battle lasted four days and nights. Littrell, showing no regard for personal safety, attacked fearlessly. He bolstered his men through his endurance and his cries of encouragement in their native tongue.

When finally ordered to withdraw, only he and 41 Rangers were able to walk. Many Americans don't know what took place that day, and he accepts that. His greater wish is for parents to influence their children's selection of heroes. He echoes a statement made by Casalini. "The only place [people] really need to look for a hero is inside themselves."

Littrell describes his fellow medal recipients as a bittersweet family. "Sweet because I know every person. There are only 142 of us [alive], and we're very, very close. Bitter because since Tom took the pictures, six of the 48 in the book have passed away. We're a dying society."

Rosser agreed that it will be more difficult in the future to award the medal, not because of weaker patriotism but because of smarter ways to fight wars.

"I just had a three-star general come back from Afghanistan and tell me, 'The strangest thing you'll ever see is a Green Beret master sergeant riding a Mongolian pony with a laptop computer strapped to a saddle and calling in B-52 strikes,' " Rosser said.

Ground battles like the ones he and Littrell endured just won't happen anymore, he said.

He's proud that his daughter and granddaughter followed him into the 101 st Airborne Division.

"A lot of people say we're wasting the lives of our sons and daughters [through military service], but I think it's worth it to keep this country the way it is."

Michael J. Dongilli is a free-lance writer.

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