Despite the cool, spring temperatures, sweat soaked through Army Tech Sergeant Van Barfoot’s uniform as he ran. It was the last thing on his mind as he gasped for oxygen. Getting shot to pieces was more pressing – running ever further from his platoon behind him. They remained trapped in the open fields near Carano, Italy, and pinned under heavy German fire. Unable to move, they faced certain death if they attempted to advance or even retreat. In front of him, several German machine gun bunkers continued to pour concentrated fire into his comrades. He alone, keeping to the left flank of their position, remained unnoticed.
As he neared the Germans, he dove to the ground, prayed he would remain unseen, and dragged himself forward on his stomach. The buckle of his web belt raked in the dirt, clinging to his gear and increasing the resistance as he crawled. His heart raced. In front of him, the German machine gun nests continued to fire on his platoon behind him. Wriggling closer, he pulled out a grenade, ripped off the pin, and heaved the device into the first machine gun nest he saw. He hit it directly – killing two Germans and wounding three. The firing stopped – at least from that position.
He approached it cautiously, observing the battered remains of the guns and the soldiers manning it. None of them posed any further threat. Further down the line the firing continued, and he kept moving towards it. Having essentially infiltrated the enemy defenses, Barfoot crawled close to the next machine gun emplacement and opened fire with his Thompson, killing two Germans instantly.
The three remaining, recognizing their situation, threw up their hands in surrender immediately. Nearby, German soldiers in another position observed the fates of their comrades and also surrendered to Barfoot. He disarmed them, leaving the prisoners for a squad of his brothers approaching behind him. Still operating on a combination of adrenalin and desperation, he continued moving down the line.
In short order, he had captured seventeen Germans, effectively broken the assault’s stalemate, and his men soon moved into the positions he had singlehandedly overrun. It looked for a moment that Barfoot could rest. They were relatively safe now. Yet they would receive no respite. In the distance, the firing intensified. The Germans were launching a fierce counterassault against them. And, they were using tanks.
As three Mark VI tanks rumbled towards them, Barfoot crawled out of his position, exposed himself directly to their fire, and launched a bazooka at the lead tank 75 meters away. His rocket hit it in the tread, causing a mobility kill. The brazen destruction of their lead caused the other two tanks to immediately turn off to the flanks. Sprinting towards the now-disabled tank, Barfoot killed three tankers as they scrambled from the hatch, and continued deeper into the German lines. When he reached a recently-abandoned German field piece, he rammed a demolition charge in its breech and destroyed it. The immediate threats eliminated and now utterly exhausted, he began retreating to his platoon’s position behind him. He was probably contemplating how many times over he should have been killed that day.
As he moved, he came upon two seriously-wounded US Soldiers and, despite his own weariness, helped them both to their feet and assisted them a full 1,700 meters back to a position of safety before rejoining his own platoon. For his valorous efforts on that day, May 23rd 1944, Barfoot was later awarded the nation’s highest military citation; the Medal of Honor. (Another Soldier, 2nd Lt Thomas Fowler, was also awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that day, but was killed 11 days later and received the citation posthumously.)
Decades later, by this time a field-grade officer, and having fought honorably in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, Van Barfoot retired from the United States Army a highly decorated Soldier. Now 90 years old, he lives in Henrico County, Virginia, about 45 miles from my home. Every morning, he solemnly raises the colors on the flagpole in his front yard, and at sunset lowers and folds them perfectly. He has done this for as long as he has lived at that residence.
Yesterday (December 2nd, 2009), the Coates & Davenport lawfirm of Richmond, Virginia (representing the Sussex Square Homeowners Association) issued him a five-paragraph letter stating that he must remove the flagpole by 5PM on Friday or face “legal action being brought to enforce the Covenants and Restrictions against you.” According to the homeowners association, the flagpole was erected despite their denial of his request to their board. The letter also states that he will be held liable for all legal fees the homeowners association incurs to enforce the matter. According to Barfoot’s daughter, however, there is no provision in the association’s rules that expressly forbids flagpoles. Instead, in July they determined it to be forbidden on aesthetic grounds and ordered him remove it. He ignored them.
Evidently, the Colors of the United States of America are an eyesore to the community.
If there is such a thing as a class of citizen who has earned the right to do virtually whatever he pleases, it is a Medal of Honor recipient – one whose actions have changed the course of battles, saved countless lives, and brought a quicker end to bloodshed. More than simply being held in high esteem, bearers of this sacred award must be saluted by all uniformed members of the armed services, regardless of their rank. Even Admiral Mike Mullen, current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, must salute this man. Additionally, in a room full of officers, all enlisted men will salute him, the wearer of the Medal of Honor, before rendering respects to any other. It is a well-earned privilege and honor, there are less than 200 of them living today. Under federal law, the award cannot be imitated or privately sold. The penalty: prison.
Yet Barfoot apparently is not permitted to post the colors on his own property on account of it being an eyesore. Though this situation only came to a head one day ago, it has already gained national media attention depicting an overbearing homeowners association making a stand in entirely the wrong places. Barfoot’s daughter, appropriately, alerted the media to the situation, who have made the public aware of a hero’s wrongful treatment. No doubt, the media will also cover the outcome tomorrow, when Barfoot refuses to remove his flagpole.
I am aware that we live in an age where it is “trendy” to take a stand for something. I am also aware that, in a time when being pro-military and patriotic is vocally encouraged, daring to behave differently is trendy, too. Furthermore, I am fully aware that nobody likes to be told “no,” especially when they considered themselves in a position of authority. It is also “trendy” to bring legal action against anybody who insults you. What I was unaware of, however, is that it is apparently trendy to be an absolute asshole.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved