I once had the opportunity meet a Medal of Honor recipient, Colonel Jack Jacobs, who’d been invited to speak to an audience of local business people. A small and unassuming man, Jacobs, I found, exuded a huge spirit for life. His experience as a soldier left him with the total loss of his senses of taste and smell. I remember being so very surprised to hear him say that his favorite dish was lamb. I wondered how with no sense of taste, he could enjoy any sort of food. What would there be to life if you couldn’t take in all of the wonderful things around you?
If you couldn’t smell the roses, see the mountaintops, or feel the rain, would there be anything left to enjoy? Well, for Jacobs, life meant so much more than what he took in through his senses. Just listen to the intensity of this story from the battlefields of Vietnam:
A mortar round landed just a few feet away and sent shrapnel tearing through the top of Jacobs’s head. Most of the bones in his face were broken, and he could see out of only one eye. He tried calling in air strikes, but the intense enemy ground fire drove off the U.S. fighters. Shortly afterward, the lead company commander was badly wounded, and the South Vietnamese troops began to panic. Jacobs assessed the situation and realized that if someone didn’t act quickly, everyone would be killed. The words of Hillel, the great Jewish philosopher, jumped into his mind: “If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
He assumed control of the unit, ordering a withdrawal from the exposed position to a defensive perimeter. He dragged a wounded American sergeant, riddles with chest and stomach wounds, to safety, then returned to the fire-swept battlefield to rescue others.
— Medal of Honor, Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty
Badly injured, Jacobs returned to the United States and was assigned the position of commander of an Officer Candidate company at Fort Benning. About a year later, he received an order to report to Washington in October of 1969, and it was there that he was awarded the Medal of Honor from president Richard Nixon.
Jacobs completed graduate school, earning a M.A. in international relations, but then requested a return to Vietnam. The government honored his request on the condition that he would remain out of harm’s way. The words of Hillel must have stuck with this soldier because when he returned, he immediately got himself reassigned to the Vietnamese Airborne Division in the thick of fighting in Quang Tri. There he was once again wounded.
I was privileged to meet Colonel Jacobs the day that he spoke of war. And yes, his experiences were hard, but his sense of life was one of strength and kindness. Never in his voice did I hear bitterness or disappointment. In fact, war seems to have left Jacobs a stronger man, a man more committed to acting on the very words that came to his mind that day he was staring death in the face: If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?
Jacobs was kind enough to inscribe a note to my son in the book, Medal of Honor. Listen to his humble words:
Very best wishes from an old soldier. Always follow your dreams and you won’t go wrong.
– Jack Jacobs
Days 24-26 Guide
I love this country — its people, its heroes, its vitality, and its will to soar. Always follow your dreams¦ says the old, war-torn solider. Yes, follow your dreams – follow them despite the difficulties and the challenges. Seek the deeper beauty in life that would have you answer the question, If I am only for myself, what am I?