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Stories of valor, sacrifice told at Ga. symposium

COLUMBUS, Ga. — Retired Army Col. Jack Jacobs doesn't gloss over the reality of war — or the fear.

Jacobs was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions as an injured first lieutenant when he dragged 13 soldiers to safety during a March 9, 1968, ambush at Kien province in south Vietnam.

"Anybody who is in combat and says he is not scared is a lying dog; or he is a psycho; or he is a lying psycho," Jacobs said Thursday.

Retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Orson Swindle, a fighter pilot who spent seven years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, agreed with Jacobs.

"If you are not afraid, you are absolutely nuts," Swindle said. "I was sane and I was scared to death."

Jacobs and Swindle participated in a two-part program that brought four Medal of Honor recipients and four former POWs to Columbus for the Vietnam: Valor & Sacrifice Symposium at the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center. The men shared war stories of valor and sacrifice to more than 200 civilians and military personnel, including about 70 U.S. Marines assigned to Fort Benning.

The symposium is part of a series of events for the museum's dedication of the Vietnam Memorial Plaza.

At times, the stories made people laugh.

Swindle, who was raised south of Columbus in Camilla, Ga., spent seven years in captivity, at one point sharing a cell with U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Swindle was shot down on what was to be his last mission, one he volunteered to fly after receiving orders to return home.

"I made a tragic mistake," Swindle stated. "You don't ever parachute over your target."

But there was a serious side, too.

Just after Swindle's capture, he was taken into a city street and tied up.

"People came by and spit on me, they urinated on me," he said. "The whole time I was thinking I must be having a bad dream."

Swindle said he felt inferior because he gave information to his north Vietnamese interrogators. They asked the names of his commanders and others.

"I was giving them the name of my high school football coach and my teammates," Swindle said. "Well, when I got home they had a day for me in Camilla. The place was packed -- 200 people."

Sitting down front were his former teammates and coaches at Mitchell County High School.

"I looked at those guys and said, 'I don't think any of you should ever go to north Vietnam," Swindle said.

A gripping story of capture came from retired Col. Harold Kushner, an Army medical doctor who spent more than five years in captivity after his helicopter crashed in enemy territory. In that time, he had nine Americans and two West German nurses die in his arms.

"People in our camp generally died of starvation because there was nothing to eat," Kushner said. "Escape was impossible. And if you attempted to escape, you were put in the stocks, given two cups of rice a day. You had to defecate in your hand and throw it away from you."

Kushner was not allowed to practice medicine while in the prison camp. Other prisoners were not allowed to call him "Doc."

"That was frustrating," Kushner said.

Staff Sgt. Rickey Jordan was one of the Marines who spent Thursday afternoon listening to the former POWs and Medal of Honor recipients.

"It was a moving experience," he said. "I have never had the opportunity to hear many of these stories. It's a brotherhood."

Jacobs said the Medal of Honor came with an enormous responsibility.

"There are a lot of positives and negatives to it," he said. "I try and teach young soldiers you are no better than your next mission. Hank Aaron was no better than his next home run. LeBron James is no better than his next basket. You have to continue moving forward, and you can't let the past define you."

Joseph Galloway, an embedded reporter at Landing Zone X-Ray during the battle of Ia Drang Valley in 1965, was guest speaker for the 7 p.m. dinner after the symposium. He is a retired columnist for McClatchy Newspapers, owner of the Ledger-Enquirer.

The events continue today with the dedication of the Dignity Memorial Vietnam Wall, a replica of the original wall in Washington, this morning at 10 after an infantry graduation on parade field. The speaker is retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey. Vietnam veterans are encouraged to attend.

On Saturday, the museum will wrap up its events with a free screening of "Brothers of War," a National Geographic documentary that will be shown at 4 p.m. in the IMAX theater. Seats are limited so arrive early.
 

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