At the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, they don't tell war stories.

"I've known Chuck for years and I don't know what he did to get his," says onetime Guadalcanal Medical Corpsman Bob Bush, now 64, of Olympia, Wash. "Most of us don't know each other's stories. You just ... don't ask questions like that."

He's sitting at a round table in a room at the Washington Sheraton with five other graying recipients of the nation's highest military honor. They're kicking around concepts like "valor," "sacrifice" and "fear" at a reporter's behest two weeks into the Persian Gulf War, and they're not totally comfortable with the terminology.

"Look, this medal is a lot harder to wear than it is to earn," says former Boatswain's Mate 1st Class Elliott Williams, now a 60-year-old retired U.S. marshal from Palm Coast, Fla. "You try to honor it, but people think you're supposed to be some sort of superman. They don't understand that we bleed and hurt and cry just like anybody else."

In fact, he and his colleagues say, the Medal of Honor Society functions in part as a sort of support group, helping medal holders deal with the peculiar pressures the medal brings.

Williams, for example, remembers being with the late Audie Murphy, another Medal of Honor winner, in a nightclub in New York during the 1960s when a drunk tried to pick a fight with the most decorated serviceman of World War II "to see if he could whip him." Williams and Murphy left the club to avoid the conflict, he said, "and on the way out the door Audie stumbled over this dog that was rushing by. And this woman started hollering, saying just because he was the big tough Audie Murphy he thought he could kick her dog. We got in a big flap over nothing!"

You might not think Medal of Honor veterans would even notice incidents like that, all things considered.

Bob Bush, for example, was a corpsman patching up members of a Marine rifle company on Okinawa May 2, 1945, when he got caught in what his commendation calls a "savage" Japanese counterattack. Administering plasma with one hand and firing first a pistol and then a discarded carbine with the other, he fought off "Japanese charging point-blank over the hill, accounting for six of the enemy despite his own serious wounds {which included} the loss of one eye ..." With the attack beaten off, he "valiantly" refused treatment for himself until his patient had been evacuated, "collapsing only after attempting to walk to the battle station."

Now he runs a lumber company back in Washington state, a lanky fellow with a mustache and glasses who might pass for your local dentist. He says he was just a kid of 18 at the time, was only doing what he'd been trained to do, had been doing exactly the identical thing for the previous 32 days ("keeping as many people at the guns as possible") and only received the medal because he got caught in that attack and "was very, very scared."

At times like that, he and the others say, training and instinct take over and you do what you have to do.

"I very much want you to understand that thousands and thousands of servicemen have done the sort of things we did in war," he says. "But maybe they got killed, or maybe nobody saw them do it, or maybe something else went wrong. We feel like we wear the medal for all of them."

Besides, Bush is nagged by the awareness that vast numbers of U.S. servicemen fought their way anonymously from campaign to campaign for years during World War II, while his entire career in the service consisted of "1 year, 11 months and 22 days." He would have you believe he got off too easy for a medal, lost eye and all.

Such restlessness beneath the laurels of honor appears a common condition among the medalists. They insist, for example, that they haven't "won" the medal, only "received" it, and generally credit other factors for that.

Williams, whose citation describes a terrifying three-hour battle on the Mekong River in Vietnam in 1966 in which his lone, vastly outgunned patrol craft accounted for the loss of 65 enemy boats, says it wasn't really a matter of courage.

"The Navy finally gave an enlisted man a chance at command," he said. "I'd been in the Navy 19 years and had never had that. My boat may have looked like a little thing to you, but it was mine! And those 10 young kids in the crew were my responsibility. I wasn't going to screw up a chance like that if I could help it ... I loved those kids. I only lost one, but that loss still hurts."

Air Force Col. Joe M. Jackson, 67, of Kent, Wash., now retired from Boeing aircraft, says another misconception about medal winners is that they somehow don't know fear.

When he landed his C-123 aircraft May 12, 1968, at a special forces base at Kham Duc, Vietnam, on a rescue mission, "I was scared half to death." According to the citation accompanying his medal, "hostile forces had overrun the forward outposts and were raking the camp with small arms, mortars, light and heavy automatic weapons and recoilless rifle fire. The camp was engulfed in flames and ammunition dumps were continuously exploding and littering the runway with debris."

He got his plane off the ground with the rescued troops aboard, he says, "because at some point fear starts to work for you. The adrenaline keeps you going and you're too busy to worry. You can't start worrying about dying anyway, or it's sure to happen."

Army Col. Charles Murray, 69, who as a second lieutenant in France in World War II single-handedly attacked a force of 200 Germans, killing 20, capturing 10 others and wounding or routing the rest despite eight wounds from a hand grenade, says that "in the end, you fight for the buddy next to you."

The medal recipients say they have no fear for today's troops in the Persian Gulf. Marine Col. Mitchell Paige, 72, of La Quinta, Calif., who in the early days on Guadalcanal in 1942 single-handedly held a machine gun position in the face of a Japanese breakthrough when all his men were killed, then led a bayonet-charge of reinforcements when they finally arrived, says that "if you're properly trained you become like a well-oiled machine."

The blood shed among the ground troops yesterday, the medalists know, is only the beginning. But they accept that.

"God knows none of us likes war," Williams said. "We've seen it far too close ... But America was birthed in war, and I'm afraid we'll have war with us until man stops coveting what belongs to his neighbor. All we can do, all they can do {in the Persian Gulf} is the best they can."