The Medal of Honor is the highest military honor that the United States awards — only 80 recipients are alive today.
UT students and faculty gave one of those recipients, Col. Bruce Crandall, a standing ovation in the University Center Ballroom yesterday morning.
"Every one of us who wears the medal, and there's 80 of us, every one of us has the same sense — that we did nothing that we weren't expected to and supposed to do. It is our duty," Crandall said, in a gravelly voice that belied the life he's led. "Everyone that wears the medal knows that others who would be in that situation would have done the same. I could not have left those people."
Forty-seven years ago to the day, Crandall was a U.S. Army helicopter pilot stationed near the Vietnam-Cambodia border. As the Battle of Ia Drang broke out, Crandall made 22 flights in unarmed helicopters into an intensely hot landing zone. He delivered supplies and ammunition to infantryman on the ground; he also saved the lives of more than 70 wounded soldiers.
"We were in the air for 14 and a half hours total, we changed aircraft five times," Crandall said. "During our fifth lift out of the landing zone, the landing zone was closed by the infantry commander. On the way back ... I knew we were gonna be in trouble, leaving the infantry on the ground without any ammo ... I had eight other aircraft coming in, they were cancelled at the same time. So I asked volunteers to go with me as soon as we got back."
Crandall's first helicopter was damaged early in the day, and when he called ahead to get a new helicopter, they pulled the new helicopter's doors off, replacing them with his original doors. Crandall's doors had a snake coiled in the form of a six.
"I was the only one dumb enough to have something like that on the doors — I was a target. They were trying to see how long I could last with those doors," he said. "Every time we got shot up, I would call ahead and they'd crack another aircraft and I'd be ready to go as soon as I hit the ground."
Crandall's visit culminated UT's Veterans Day celebrations, which included the playing of "Taps" by the Ayres Hall chimes on Monday and a reading of the names of those veterans who were killed in action. The celebrations were coordinated by the Safety, Environment and Education Center and the Veterans at UTK group.
Crandall's visit also served as a prelude to the 2014 Congressional Medal of Honor Convention, to be held in Knoxville. Don Nabb from the Congressional Medal of Honor Executive Committee said that the decision to hold the convention in Knoxville was popular with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
"We live in Knoxville, and we petitioned and (were) able to win the honor to host the convention," he said. "We made our pitch to the Society ... they unanimously selected Knoxville to host the 2014 convention."
A large section of the crowd wore military uniforms, as both Air Force and Army ROTC members listened intently to Crandall's stories. Kyle Buck, senior in political science and member of the Army's ROTC program, noted the uniqueness of the program.
"It means a lot, it's a once in a lifetime opportunity for most people," Buck said. "I don't know if I'll get a chance to actually see someone as honorable (as) Crandall again."