The nature of heroes

Maybe you received the e-mail last week berating the news media for providing so much coverage to Michael Jackson, while ignoring the death of Ed Freeman, who was one of 246 recipients of the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War.

He was, in fact, a hero.

Back at base, Freeman and the other pilots received word that the GIs they had dropped off were taking heavy casualties and running low on supplies. In fact, the fighting was so fierce that medevac helicopters refused to pick up the wounded. When the commander of the helicopter unit asked for volunteers to fly into the battle zone, Freeman alone stepped forward. He was joined by his commander, and the two of them began several hours of flights into the contested area. Because their small emergency-landing zone was just one hundred yards away from the heaviest fighting, their unarmed and lightly armored helicopters took several hits. In all, Freeman carried out fourteen separate rescue missions, bringing in water and ammunition to the besieged soldiers and taking back dozens of wounded, some of whom wouldn’t have survived if they hadn’t been evacuated.

He did not, in fact, die the same day Michael Jackson did. Nor the same year. He died last year, the Washington Post’s obituary blog reports.

As I began to investigate matters, I found out that Freeman’s name had been invoked several times to berate the news media for its supposed lapses. Just as he hadn’t died on June 25, he hadn’t died last September and been neglected in favor of coverage of Paul Newman. He hadn’t died in February, as a widely circulated e-mail claimed, and been buried in an avalanche of stories about “some Hip Hop Coward beating the crap out of his ‘girlfriend.’ ” He hadn’t died, as still other e-mailers wrote, on March 25, 2009.

As it turns out, though, neither of the national dailies carried his obituary when he did die, which is odd, especially since he had a Hollywood connection. He and his colleagues involved in the Ia Drang campaign in Vietnam “are immortalized in the Mel Gibson movie We Were Soldiers, says the Idaho Statesman.

On Sunday, President Barack Obama will sign a bill naming a post office in Mississippi in his honor.

Then, perhaps, the Internet will let him rest in peace.

Another e-mail is making its rounds this week, somewhat similar to the one above. This one recognizes Shifty Powers, made famous in Steve Ambrose’s Band of Brothers. The e-mail says he died last month. He actually did.

By the way, the Web site The Living Medal of Honor Recipients reports there are now fewer than 100 living Medal of Honor recipients. One of them, Leo Thorsness, is a Minnesota native. He placed John McCain’s name in nomination at last year’s Republican National Convention in St. Paul.

(A longer conversation can be found here)