Gary Beikirch returned from Vietnam filled with rage and racked by guilt and worried he’d kill the next college kid who spat on him.
The former Green Beret medic let his mustache droop, and his hair reach his shoulders. He bought snow shoes and a thick down jacket and, in 1973, went to live in a cave in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. He laid his sleeping bag and camping mat on a bed of leaves and pine needles. He hoped he’d find in the woods the peace and contentment he’d lost in the jungle.
A few weeks later, Mr. Beikirch drove his Chevy into town, where he took classes at a seminary. He found a note in his post office box instructing him to await a phone call from the Pentagon. That evening, a colonel was on the line telling him he’d be receiving the Medal of Honor for his actions during a North Vietnamese attack on a U.S. Special Forces outpost near the Laotian border.
In the first hour of the assault, on April 1, 1970, shrapnel hit 22-year-old Mr. Beikirch in the spine, leaving him temporarily unable to walk. He draped his arms over the shoulders of two Vietnamese aides as they dragged him through a steady rain of high-explosive shells so he could continue to treat the injured.
Mr. Beikirch kept going for more than 12 hours, at some points exchanging fire with North Vietnamese soldiers while confined to a stretcher. He suffered three bullet wounds before a medevac helicopter finally carried him off.
In October 1973, Mr. Beikirch hiked out of the New Hampshire mountains and caught a flight to Washington. The quartermaster issued him a uniform, and the barber cut his hair. President Richard Nixon fitted the star-spangled blue choker and wreathed medal around his neck.
A couple of days later, Mr. Beikirch returned to his cave and put the medal in his duffel bag. He didn’t take it out for another seven years.
“Here I had gone into a cave to try to forget about Vietnam,” says Mr. Beikirch, “and now they’re going to give me a medal for something I’m trying to forget.”
Such is the mixed blessing that is the Medal of Honor.
Mr. Beikirch is in one of the most elite military fraternities in the world, one of 70 living recipients of the nation’s highest award for combat valor.
For those who earn it, the medal is a loaded gift. It’s a source of instant celebrity, and an entree into a world of opportunity and adulation. It’s also a reminder of what is often the worst day of their lives. And it is a summons to lifetime of service from those who did something so courageous as young men—so at odds with their own chances of survival—that it was beyond what duty demands.
Since its establishment during the Civil War, 3,505 servicemen and one woman have received the Medal of Honor. (Surgeon Mary Walker was honored for her civilian service at the 1861 Battle of Bull Run.)
Some recipients embrace the role of Medal of Honor recipient, spending their lives speaking to civic groups, raising money for charities and hobnobbing with movie stars, politicians and professional athletes. Others resent having their private grief turned into a public display.
Related video: Heroic service members speak on meaning of their Medals of Honor (MSNBC)
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Special Forces medic Ron Shurer, now battling cancer, faces daily decisions about how to divide his remaining time between duty to his young family and duty to the Medal of Honor. Army Capt. Florent Groberg felt ashamed accepting the medal when the men beside him never came home. Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer hates the medal for the memories it won’t let him forget.
“Everybody is going to struggle on how to absorb the weight of the medal when you put it on,” Mr. Shurer says. “I don’t think anybody has received it and not been like, ‘Why me?’”
For Mr. Beikirch, the medal is forever intertwined with remorse over the death of his 15-year-old Montagnard bodyguard, Deo. The Montagnards, an isolated ethnic group from Vietnam’s central highlands, allied themselves with the U.S. during the war, and hundreds of them were at the camp when the North Vietnamese attacked.
Deo carried Mr. Beikirch into a medical bunker after the Green Beret was shot in the hip. Mr. Beikirch refused to stay under cover, so Deo hoisted him back out into the fray. After Mr. Beikirch was shot in the stomach, Deo returned him to the bunker.
“If I’m going to die, I’m not going to die here,” Mr. Beikirch remembers telling the boy. “I’m going to die in battle.”
So Deo again carried him outside. When they heard a rocket overhead, Deo threw himself on top of Mr. Beikirch, absorbing a lethal spray of shrapnel as he shielded the American.
“It is harder to live with the medal than it was to earn it,” says Mr. Beikirch, reciting a lesson familiar to many a recipient.
In 1981, Mr. Beikirch joined a rally of Vietnam veterans in Rochester, N.Y., to celebrate the return of Americans from captivity in Iran, and to protest the shoddy treatment U.S. troops received when they returned from the war.
Another vet asked him to address the crowd while wearing his Medal of Honor. Mr. Beikirch agreed to speak, but at first declined to wear the medal.
“Stop being so selfish, Gary,” he remembers the vet telling him. “Don’t wear it for you. Wear it for us.”
Time gave him wisdom. Faith gave him calm. And the medal, he found, gave him a chance to confront his demons.
Charles MacGillivary, who had received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of the Bulge, would call him once in a while and suggest that helping others might suture his own wounds.
So began decades in which Mr. Beikirch, now 71 years old, worked with alcoholics, veterans and others suffering from post-traumatic stress. He served as a middle-school counselor, and worked with other Medal of Honor recipients to create a school program encouraging character development.
Now, 44 years after he moved out of the cave, he’s one of the veteran Medal of Honor recipients advising younger awardees how to navigate the onslaught of opportunities and obligations.
In January, Mr. Beikirch received a text from Ron Shurer, a Special Forces medic who received the Medal of Honor last October for his performance under fire in Afghanistan.
Mr. Shurer planned to attend the funeral of Capt. Drew Ross, a fellow Green Beret, at Arlington National Cemetery. He was unsure whether to wear the Medal of Honor.
“My gut says don’t wear the Medal as I don’t want to distract at all from the service,” Mr. Shurer wrote to Mr. Beikirch. But, he added, “it’s still so awkward for me to have the Medal at all that I think I avoid it when it might be beneficial.”
Mr. Beikirch wrote back about his own struggle “with what the Medal meant and especially why I was presented with it…and how there were so many others I served with that deserved it more than I did.”
Related slideshow: Military medals and what they mean (Stacker)
When the moment came, Mr. Shurer wore the medal, but lingered in the background. Capt. Ross’s relatives thanked him for showing up. “Obviously anybody who has earned that medal is quite a human being, someone who cares a heck of a lot more about others than himself,” says Stephen Ross, the fallen man’s father.
It was, Mr. Shurer wrote to Mr. Beikirch, part of “this continual challenge to learn how to be a recipient.”
In 2008, Mr. Shurer’s Special Forces team was sent on a mission to kill or capture a top leader of the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin insurgent group. The operation felt doomed from the start; Green Berets and green Afghan commandos were supposed to land by helicopter in Shok Valley and climb 1,000 feet to the militant’s village hideout on the ridge above.
Overhead reconnaissance imagery, however, failed to convey how steep the mountainsides were. The first few troops clawed their way to the village. Others were trapped and without cover when machine-gun bullets and rocket-propelled grenades poured in from hundreds of concealed insurgents.
Mr. Shurer, then a staff sergeant, scrambled up the mountain, exposing himself to enemy fire while treating Staff Sgt. Dillon Behr, who was shot in the arm and pelvis, losing blood fast, and Staff Sgt. Luis Morales, hit in the thighs and ankle. A gunshot effectively amputated Staff Sgt. John Walding’s leg.
At one point, an insurgent round tore through Master Sgt. Scott Ford’s arm and hit Mr. Shurer in the helmet. The men next to Mr. Shurer saw his eyes widen in disbelief.
He was so covered in his comrades’ blood that he couldn’t tell if his was leaking, too. “Am I good?” he asked Sgt. Behr.
Mr. Shurer, then 29 years old, remembers thinking: “I’m going to die here, but I’m going to work until I can’t.”
Eventually Mr. Shurer and the others lowered the wounded by rope down a series of 20-plus-foot cliffs to the valley floor.
He didn’t even realize he had been grazed by a bullet until he returned to base, got in the shower and saw blood and bruising on his arm. He found a bullet hole in his sleeve.
An Afghan commando and a beloved Afghan interpreter died that day. No U.S. troops were killed during a firefight that lasted almost seven hours, thanks in large part to Mr. Shurer.
Soon after returning to the U.S., Mr. Shurer was awarded the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest award for valor.
He left the Army and joined the Secret Service’s elite counterassault unit, which responds to major attacks on the president.
As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on, the military came under pressure for what critics considered excessive stinginess with combat awards. The Pentagon launched a broad review in 2016, and in September 2018 Mr. Shurer’s Secret Service colleagues and then-White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a former Marine general, duped him into going to the Oval Office, where President Donald Trump surprised him with the news that his award would be upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
Mr. Shurer immediately contacted other members of his Special Forces team.
“You saved my life,” Mr. Morales assured him. “You saved John’s life. Dillon’s life. Yeah. Of course you’re getting the Medal of Honor.”
Last fall, Mr. Trump placed the medal around Mr. Shurer’s neck.
Soon after, Navy SEAL Ed Byers invited Mr. Shurer to grab a beer and talk about the distinction they now shared. “It’s an incredible honor,” says Master Chief Byers. “It’s also an incredible responsibility. Not in a negative way, but it’s a lifelong burden. It’s not something you can ever put down.”
Master Chief Byers, one of only two recipients still on active duty, barely knew Mr. Shurer. But he recalled a pair of Vietnam SEALs who had coached him after he received his own medal in 2016 for his role in the rescue of a kidnapped American in Afghanistan. He knew Mr. Shurer might need some guidance.
Master Chief Byers warned the flood of invitations would be overwhelming. “Just do the stuff you want,” he said. Anyone who asks Mr. Shurer to make an appearance should cover his expenses, Master Chief Byers said.
The medal comes with a $1,366 monthly stipend—among other perks. American Airlines gives Mr. Shurer top-tier VIP status. He and three other recipients appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” Free trip to the Super Bowl. Nascar races. A black-tie USO dinner where Mr. Shurer coordinated pizza delivery to his young sons and babysitter, then posed for photos with Miss America Nia Franklin and New England Patriots legend Rob Gronkowski.
“Without a doubt it’s the coolest retirement gig you could have,” he jokes with his wife, Miranda Shurer.
Executives from a Florida insurance brokerage pledged $20,000 to a St. Petersburg special-operations charity, the Brian Bill Foundation, for Mr. Shurer’s company in their cart during a round of golf last month. Mr. Shurer doesn’t even play golf.
Shortly before the trip, however, Mr. Shurer canceled. The year before he received the medal, he discovered he had stage-four lung cancer. The disease is lodged in his hip, lungs, vertebrae, brain and ribs. A new scan just before the golf trip brought news of another setback.
The disease demands hard decisions about how to spend his time.
He’s haunted by the possibility that his two sons—particularly Tyler, a second-grader—might not remember him. The medal helps.
“Knowing that his story—and who he is—is cemented in history is good for me, good for our kids,” says Mrs. Shurer.
Earlier this year, Cameron, a fifth-grader, introduced his father in assembly in the school gym. “He saved a lot of people and helped get the guys that were hurt off a cliff and get them out of there,” Cameron told his schoolmates. “He was amazing.”
The family tries to do one memorable activity together between Mr. Shurer’s cancer scans, and they have a pile of medal-related invitations to sift through.
The boys have been to the White House. They’ve been to Special Operations Command in Tampa. They attended the Military Bowl football game between Virginia Tech and Cincinnati.
When the Shurers told the boys not long ago that they were going out for dinner, Tyler asked: “What’s the event? Are we getting heavy hors d’oeuvres?”
“We’re just going to McDonald’s, kids,” Mr. Shurer replied.
When he agrees to a public event, it’s usually one that supports the military or veterans.
“Green Berets are a family, and I can’t imagine anything one wouldn’t do for their family,” Mr. Shurer said during a speech at a recent Green Beret Foundation fundraiser in San Diego. ”When someone comes to the team, you can like them, or you can hate them. But they are family.”
In 2012, Army Capt. Flo Groberg was in charge of a security detail protecting senior U.S. officials during a routine meeting with local leaders in Asadabad, Afghanistan. As the group crossed a small bridge, Mr. Groberg spotted a man walking backward toward the Americans. The man pivoted, revealing a suspicious bulge in his clothes.
Mr. Groberg, 29 years old at the time, bolted forward and slammed the butt of his rifle into the attacker’s chest. Realizing the bulge was an explosive suicide vest, Mr. Groberg yelled, “Bomb,” and knocked the man to the ground.
The man detonated the vest, launching Mr. Groberg unconscious onto the road some 20 feet away. Ball-bearing shrapnel tore into his calf and broke his left leg; the explosion blew out his ear drum and inflicted traumatic injury to his brain. He would undergo 33 operations and spend almost three years in and out of hospitals. Sgt. Andrew Mahoney, who had rushed forward to help Mr. Groberg fend off the attack, suffered grisly wounds to his arm, shoulder and legs.
Mr. Groberg’s quick action saved a number of lives, but three U.S. servicemen and a U.S. Agency for International Development employee died.
Their deaths haunted Mr. Groberg, and a wave of shame rolled over him when President Barack Obama called in 2015 to tell him he’d be awarded the Medal of Honor. “You’re about to call me a hero in front of the nation,” he recalls thinking. “I was in charge of security on that team, and I lost four on my watch.”
From his Washington apartment, Mr. Groberg called the widows of Army Command Sgt. Maj. Kevin Griffin, Army Maj. Thomas Kennedy and U.S. Air Force Maj. Walter Gray. (The family of Foreign Service officer Ragaei Abdelfattah had by then returned to his native Egypt.)
He choked up when he reached Maj. Gray’s wife, Heather Blalock, and asked her permission to accept the award. He told her that he and Maj. Gray had done laundry together the night before the suicide attack, swapping stories about their families.
“You don’t need our permission,” Mrs. Blalock recalls saying.
Mr. Groberg, however, “was very adamant that if he didn’t get our permission and our blessing—and our attendance even—he wouldn’t accept it,” she says. She promised to be at the medal ceremony.
A White House speechwriter contacted Mr. Groberg to discuss what the president would say at the ceremony; Mr. Groberg asked that Mr. Obama identify his lost comrades by name.
In the gold-draped East Room, Mr. Obama gave a few telling details about each of the four and asked their widows and children to stand.
“As Flo reminds us, this medal—in his words—honors them as much as any honors that are bestowed upon him,” the president said. Mr. Groberg nodded vigorously.
He fought back tears as the president faced him, shook his hand and gently straightened the medal on his dress uniform, like a father fixing his son’s tie.
The Congressional Medal of Honor Society, the organization made up of living recipients, quickly sent Mr. Groberg a packet explaining how it could help him adapt to life as a Medal of Honor awardee. The society, based on a decommissioned aircraft carrier in the harbor at Charleston, S.C., serves as a clearinghouse for anyone contacting Medal of Honor recipients.
During high season—around Memorial or Veterans days—the society might field 150 invitations a week from groups seeking Medal of Honor recipients to participate in anything from high-school graduations to veterans’ alligator hunts. Some groups want a specific recipient; others want to hear from anyone who has earned the medal.
At the time, Mr. Groberg had recently left the military and was working as a civilian in the Pentagon. The Army put him back in uniform for six weeks and escorted him on an 18-hour-a-day blur of publicity visits to military units, police departments, civic groups and media outlets.
He appeared on late-night television with Stephen Colbert, and talked about the black metal bracelet he wears bearing the names of the three servicemen killed at his side. “I wake up every morning and I think about them,” he said. “I go to sleep every night and I think about them. I was given a second chance. I would do everything—I would give back everything—to have them back. I would trade places with them at any second.”
The week he was to receive the Medal of Honor, Marine sniper Dakota Meyer sat on the patio outside of the Oval Office having a beer with the president of the United States.
Chatting with Mr. Obama over White House Honey Ale, he later told TV host David Letterman, was a “great” moment.
“I got to sit down and talk to him and ask him his opinions on how to be successful,” Mr. Meyer said. “He talked about ‘Don’t make any rash decisions.’”
As a 21-year-old corporal in 2009, Mr. Meyer rashly climbed into a Humvee’s exposed machine-gun turret during a rescue of U.S. and Afghan troops caught in an ambush, as the vehicle’s driver repeatedly charged into enemy fire.
He earned the medal retrieving dozens of American and Afghan troops that day, according to the official citation. He despises the medal, he says, because it reminds him he was too late to save three other Marines and a Navy medical corpsman.
“It represents the worst day of my life,” says Mr. Meyer. “I look at that medal and I could throw up. I hate it and I resent it.”
Mr. Meyer and his medal soon became the subject of heated debate. A reporter for McClatchy embedded with the patrol accused the Marine Corps of embellishing Mr. Meyer’s heroics, although he concluded that the Marine still deserved the medal.
Mr. Meyer acknowledges he has struggled to play Medal of Honor role model. “It changed the whole trajectory of my life,” he says of the award. “People have this perception that you have to be perfect. I’m still the same person that got it.”
In 2011, Mr. Meyer sued his former employer, defense contractor BAE Systems, alleging that a company manager had smeared him to a potential new employer as mentally unstable and a problem drinker. The insults, Mr. Meyer said in the suit, were retaliation because he had objected to BAE’s plan to sell advanced thermal sniper scopes to Pakistan, a country widely accused of backing the Taliban.
“These are the same people killing our guys,” Mr. Meyer wrote to the manager, according to the lawsuit.
Later that year, Mr. Meyer received the medal, and he and BAE soon settled for an undisclosed sum. The company says it didn’t sell the scopes to Pakistan. Mr. Meyer and BAE released statements praising each other’s dedication to national defense. A company spokesman declined to elaborate for this article.
In 2014, the medal secured Mr. Meyer an appearance on “Amazing America,” a reality show hosted by Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate. That led to meeting her daughter Bristol, now 28.
At a Rascal Flatts concert a few months later, Mr. Meyer dropped to a knee and proposed to her. Their off-again-on-again engagement provided ample fodder for the celebrity press. They married in 2016, after the birth of their first daughter, Sailor.
Two years later they appeared together as regulars on a season of the MTV reality show “Teen Mom OG.” As their marriage unraveled, Mr. Meyer told Ms. Palin that the war had left him with crippling anxiety. “It’s something that I deal with from having nightmares every single night, seeing my dead guys every single morning when I wake up,” he told her during a televised argument in the car. They divorced last year. Ms. Palin didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Meyer doesn’t socialize much with other recipients. Some awardees say the unique pressures of being a recipient forge a brotherhood. Mr. Meyer says the medal is not enough to make him close to men who weren’t previously his friends.
He speaks at corporate events, where he urges companies to recruit combat veterans and help them make it in civilian life. In recent months, though, speaking engagements have dredged up old feelings, he says, and he often wakes up the next morning in his own vomit.
“How do I ever get better when I can’t really ever let it go?” he asks. “When I’m still talking about it and reliving it every single day?”
The speeches don’t generate enough income to live on, he says. He also runs a military-themed art company and a clothing line.
Strangers often feel free to air their disapproval of Mr. Meyer’s handling of the Medal of Honor. He bristles at the criticism: “Unless they’ve had one, unless they know what it’s like to put it around their neck, I just want to say, ‘F**k you for telling me how to run my life.’ ”
Instead of wearing the medal, he gave it to Sailor, now 3 years old, who sometimes keeps it in a diaper bag and sometimes in her toy chest. Mr. Meyer says he sees the Medal of Honor when Sailor takes it out to play dress-up.