In the pantheon of certified heroes, none rank higher than Lloyd (Scooter) Burke, a retired Army colonel with nine fingers and shrapnel in his cheeks.
The official record tells of a day, Oct. 28, 1951, in Chong Dong, Korea, when Burke, having singlehandedly dispatched two bunkers full of Chinese and North Korean troops, turned his attention to a third.
"Ordering his men forward he charged the third emplacement, catching several grenades in midair and hurling them back at the enemy. Inspired by his display of valor his men stormed forward, overran the hostile position but were again pinned down . . . Lt. Burke set up a machine gun and poured a crippling fire into the ranks of the enemy, killing approximately 75. Although wounded he ordered more ammunition [and] cradling the [machine gun] in his arms he led his men forward, killing 28 more of the retreating enemy ."
"Hell son, we're just a bunch of unassuming guys," said the colonel whose exploits that day and earned him the nation's highest award for bravery, the Medal of Honor.
Burke was relaxing Saturday in the lobby of the new Marriott Hotel at Tysons Corner where the largest group of medal recipients ever assembled have gathered for a five-day reunion and inaugural celebration. In all, 203 of the nation's 272 consummate living heroes have accepted an invitation to attend inaugural festivities in honor of a new president, a man who symbolizes to many of them the promise of renascent patriotism and military pride.
"Ronald Reagan is the reason more people are here than ever," said Burke, executive director of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, which holds reunions every two years and has been atending presidential inaugurals since Dwight D. Eisenhower was sworn.
The heroes streaming through the Marriott lobby ranged in age from 35 to 95, hearty, plain-spoken polyester folk whose friendships are based on the most extraordinary moments of their lives. Their deeds are recorded in a book published by the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee and each has been toasted by generals and presidents.
["Harry] Truman told me he'd rather have the medal than be president," said Peter J. Dalessandro who one day in December 1945 helped hold off a German battalion for five hours, going so far as to call an artillery strike down on himself when the Germans had engulfed him. His stand enabled his battalion to retreat.
There was 87-year-old Louis Van Iersel who was on a reconnaisance patrol one night in December 1918 when he swam a freezing French river, eluded fire from seven German machine guns and gained information that kept an American battalion from walking into a trap.
There was Jim Howard, known as the "Rockthrower" because he had his men lob rocks when they ran out of grenades. With 18 men against 400 enemy, they held a barren Vietnam knoll 12 hours, beating back attacks with bayonets and trenching tools when the ammunition was almost exhausted. A helicopter pilot who saw the scene by flare said the bodies were "like ants on an anthill."
The camaraderie of these three men was not forged in side-by-side battle. "The bond is the medal," said Howard, now 50, a crop-haired, bull-necked employe with the Veterans Administration in San Diego. "The medal is the fulfillment of a dream, but nobody planned to get it like an Oscar. It's not something you can work toward. And once you get it it's the start of a new life."
Howard's new life was one of which, he says, he became a commodity.
"I made 365 appearances on the banquet circuit," he said. "The medal's hurt a lot of guys who aren't able to cope with the pressure of the medal."
In 1971 Dwight H. Johnson, a 23-year-old Vietnam veteran and medalist, was killed holding up a store in Detroit. The case still troubled some medalists as it underscored the pressure they felt had been imposed on them to live up to a higher standard. "That story went all over the country," one said. "No one would have paid any attention if he hadn't had the medal."
"The medal is harder to wear than it is to earn. I've said that for 30 years," Burke observed.
When not an onus, the medal can swell a hero's head. Some recipients knew of a medalist who, protected by the consummate token of military value, flouted military weight reglations. A more common reaction to receiving the medal, after the pride, is a feeling of embarrassment at being singled out for what was clearly an extraordinary act, a fateful coincidence of time and place and instincts that would probably never happen again, and so never give a chance to know if one would always act like a hero, or just got brave once. Most of the recipients stressed how ordinary they are, and almost no one freely dusted off the stories that earned them their award.
"Being treated like a hero embarrasses me more than it makes me feel good," said Dalessandro who, after the war returned to Albany, N.Y., and was picked to run for the state senate by the Democratic Party because it needed a military man who could compete with the general the Republicans had slated. He won and served 12 years.
"It's not to say I don't love and respect and honor the medal," Dalessandro said. "It's just that it doesn't make me feel good to be treated like a hero. I'm not the type."
Other recipients decry the lack of recognition, complaining no one knows or cares what the medal stands for.
But one for whom all is right is Matt Urban, 59, whose recommendation for the medal was lost 30 years. Thirty-five years late, he was awarded the medal last July by President Carter. The morning he spent Saturday in a hospitality suite was a union, not reunion.
"It's fantastic, it's a miracle," he cried. "Since the ceremony I've gotten over 1,000 letters from people. They say this country needs a hero."
Urban beamed, drained his first Bloody Mary with his hard-drinking group of new compatriots, and smiled widely as a man at last among his peers.