Rita, the real hero

15Oct08

The jungles of Panama. I was on a mission with the Green Berets, not quite 22 years old. The enemy: Panamanians against the installation of a puppet government by the CIA and Noriega. I hardly knew or cared at the time. I just wanted to stay alive and in one piece so I could get back to the States and elope with my fiancée, Rita, whom I’d been in love with for the last six years.

The enemy was tough. I spent eight weeks trying to take a hill with my platoon. I wrote Rita each day and she wrote too, until the end. We had it all planned out: I’d return, we’d load up the station wagon with everything we owned; she’d go to junior college and I’d deal cards at a casino in Reno. But around the fourth week, the letters became less frequent. By the seventh week, she wrote saying she was getting back together with her ex.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “Please stay alive, for me.” As I read the letter, my hands began to shake. My buddy, Tex, asked me if I was OK. I don’t much remember what happened after that.

They tell me I sprinted straight up the hill, screaming, gun blazing, tossing grenades— through mine fields and the stopping power of coked up 15-year-old freedom fighters carrying AK-47s. They tell me I killed every last one of them once I got to the top, including an old man and a boy no older than 12. For this, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

I’ll never know why Rita showed up to that ceremony, or even how she managed to get in. But I saw her sit down in the back of the room as Reagan pinned the medal to my lapel. It made me sick. I didn’t kill all those people for my country; I did it because of her. I jumped down from the stage, to everyone’s shock, walked to the back where Rita sat looking at me with frightened eyes. I tore the medal from my lapel and said, “Here. I believe this belongs to you.”

I was the first soldier in history to get a medal of honor and a dishonorable discharge. But I have no regrets.



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