Thursday, November 11, 1999

Medal of Honor winners selfless

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Amaul Fleek opens the letter and begins reading. It is written in a fine, legible, neat penmanship, on lined paper that has yellowed little with age, even after more than 30 years.

        The letter has been kept well. It is dated September 1968. It is from Charles Fleek.

        “I don't have too much time to write letters,” Sgt. Charles Fleek wrote from Vietnam. “I sure will be glad to get back home. ... Didn't know I had so many friends 'til I got over here....

        Amaul Fleek, whose nickname is Sonny, reads the letter aloud as he sits in the living room of his Dillsboro, Ind., home. His eyes redden, his voice breaks.

        Sgt. Fleek, who had turned 21 in August 1968, wishes his older brother luck with deer hunting. He asks about family. It is raining now, Sgt. Fleek writes. The ground is saturated, and it can't absorb much, so the rain runs off.

        “I have been in a few firefights. ... We have lost a lot of men. ... I pray all the time that this war will be over soon.”

        Eight months later, on May 28, 1969, Sgt. Fleek was killed. He would become one of 242 American servicemen killed that week in Vietnam. For a long time, his family would not know how he died. They heard it was an ambush. After a while, they finally learned of the details.

        Sonny Fleek says his fa ther never really recovered from the loss of his son. Even now, 30 years later, a second brother cannot talk about it.

        But Sgt. Fleek was killed that day in 1969 so that others might live. The citation from the Congressional Medal of Honor explains that in a fierce battle with the enemy Sgt. Fleek saw the grenade that had been thrown among them.

        He could have sought cover, but he didn't. Instead, he shouted a warning and threw himself on the grenade.

        Today, when all military veterans are honored, servicemen such as Sgt. Charles Fleek are remembered.

        In a war whose purpose continues to be controversial almost a quarter-century later, Sonny Fleek, who will turn 60 next month and is a veteran himself, is asked if he thinks his brother died in vain.

        “No, he died for his buddies,” Sonny Fleek says.
        Petersburg, Ky., sits in a valley on the northwestern edge of Northern Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Aurora, Ind. Peer down from the surrounding hills and it presents itself as a garden of rooftops, quaint and tiny amid the fall foliage.

        It is, as it was 30 years ago, a small river town, with a population of about 450. There is a Baptist church, a Christian Church, a gas station, a carryout, a playground and ball diamond. The yards are small and dotted with kids' bicycles and Halloween decorations that have not yet come down.

        Charles Fleek grew up here.

        He liked to fish and would join others on the walk down to the riverbank to fish the Ohio. He liked to hunt. He dropped out of school and went to work. He became a volunteer firefighter with the Petersburg Fire Department.

        “He was just a normal boy,” recalls Patty Birkle, a neighbor who still lives in Petersburg. “My son used to play with him. He would do anything he could to help you. Most of the kids were like that then.”

        Carla Rohling is Sgt. Fleek's sister. She was just 3 years old when her brother was killed. Her recollection is rendered vague by age and time, but what she has learned about her brother makes his death hardly a mystery, and not at all perplexing.

        She has learned that “Chalkie” was not one to stand by idly if another kid was being picked on.

        “Chalkie always stood up for them,” said Ms. Rohling, who lives in Owenton, Ky. “When I was growing up, I got in a little bit of trouble once when I stood up for this one girl. My mom said, "That's something Chalkie would've done.' So what happened (to Sgt. Fleek) doesn't surprise me.”
        Since World War I, there have been 936 recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award given by the United States for valor in battle against an enemy. Of those 936 recipients, more than half — 56 percent, or 527 — have been awarded posthumously. Those who earned the medal often did more than risk their lives for fellow soldiers — they gave them.

        During the Vietnam war, 239 medals were awarded; 63 percent were given posthumously. Two were awarded, both posthumously, during the Somalia conflict in 1993. None was awarded during the Persian Gulf war.

        Today, there are 150 living Medal of Honor recipients. Within the past year, 14 have died, many World War II and Korean war veterans.

        Michael Lindquist is director of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society in Mount Pleasant, S.C., an organization of living medal recipients and dedicated to preserving the dignity of the honor.

        The Medal of Honor has become a hot topic in the last few years. For one, the society meets annually now, instead of every two years, because its mem bers are dying. A memorial dedicated to the Medal of Honor opened this past Memorial Day weekend in Indianapolis, and last week a memorial was dedicated in Riverside, Calif.

        Those awarded the medal have come from all walks of life, from privates to generals, rich and poor, Americans and foreign-born. What they have in common is a particular selflessness, say society officers, that often manifested itself before they entered the service, and for some continued after they left it.

        “If I were to describe the values they represent I would say courage, commitment and selfless service,” Mr. Lindquist said. “The common thread is that they're all patriotic Americans. If you have an opportunity to hear them speak, you will find they speak very little on their deeds and more about values.”

        Ron Rosser was 22 years old when he found himself on a Korean hillside, about to take part in a raid. Mr. Rosser was raised in the Columbus area, one of 17 children who already had a brother killed in Korea. Some of the adrenalin that rushed through him on July 7, 1952, had to do with his brother.

        “They killed my brother and I was going to get me a bunch of 'em,” recalled Mr. Rosser, 70, a Medal of Honor recipient who lives in Roseville, Ohio, just south of Zanesville. “But I gave up on that, sir, since then. Hate will eat you up. You got too many people to take care of.”

        Nonetheless, he headed up the hill with other soldiers against a heavy barrage of fire. When he got to the top of the hill, all that separated him from the enemy was a lip of dirt from the trenches. Mr. Rosser, finding himself alone, charged into the trenches. He fired from his carbine, hitting the enemy. He tossed his single grenade, taking out some more. He ran out of ammunition, returned and loaded up on magazines and grenades and headed back. He took out more, again exhausting his ammunition, returned for more and hit the hill for a third time.

        He killed at least 13 of the enemy, was shot twice himself — shoulder and hand — and helped carry the wounded from the hillside.

        “I said, well, Ron Rosser, you come a long way to get here, let's give it a go,” said Mr. Rosser. “I'm one of those people, if there's nothing I can do about it, I don't even think about it. If somebody's going to kill me, they're going to kill me. There's nothing I can do about it.

        “I've killed an awful lot of people but I don't want to be remembered for that. I want to be remembered for all the boys I pulled out. I never thought I did anything heroic.”

        These days he speaks to school groups, has a daughter and two grandchildren, and a bunch of nieces and nephews. Neighbor children hang around his house.

        His young friends don't ask about the Medal of Honor.

        “They don't pay attention to that kind of stuff,” said Mr. Rosser, laughing. “I'm just their buddy.”

        Sonny Fleek has his brother's medals displayed in a case that he keeps at his home. The Medal of Honor itself is on display at the Boone County Administration Building in Burlington, Ky.

        It was during an ambush operation that Sgt. Fleek's unit encountered a large enemy force, which began to withdraw when they sensed the ambush. According to the Medal of Honor citation, Sgt. Fleek opened fire as the enemy began to withdraw.

        A battle ensued and Sgt. Fleek saw the grenade that landed among his squad. At least eight soldiers near him hadn't. He warned them and immediately threw himself on the grenade.

        Sonny Fleek has never heard from any soldier who may have been with his brother that day. Nor has Ms. Rohling.

        “I have some questions,” Mr. Fleek said. “I wouldn't pry or anything. It would just be nice to know somebody who was with him.”

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