To the special group of veterans meeting at the Myrtle Beach Hilton last weekend, there was apparently only one four-letter word: Hero.
"I am not a hero," said Vietnam veteran Gary Wetzel, 37, glaring at an outsider who had described him that way. "I am a survivor. Got that?"
In the unofficial code of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society of the United States of America, several similar rules apply. Be wary of the media. Do not embarrass the organization. And above all, do not boast about exploits, "the conspicuous gallantry above and beyond the call of duty" for which they received the nation's highest and rarest military honor.
"The only reason I'm here," said Hershel Williams, 61, a veteran of the battle of Iwo Jima, "is because the men giving me rifle protection could not be here."
Since 1861, 3,393 men and one woman, a Civil War doctor named Mary Walker, have received the Medal of Honor. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was a recipient, as was a Tennessee farm boy named Sgt. Alvin York and a World War II pilot named Gregory (Pappy) Boyington.
Most, however, were unknown soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who died performing the deeds that would earn them later recognition. Today, 249 recipients, none of them younger than 35, survive; only five recipients from World War I are alive.
Few of the men who attended the society's four-day meeting escaped their wars without serious injury. Webster Anderson, a staff sergeant in Vietnam and one of 19 blacks to receive the medal, is a triple amputee. Bombardier Henry Erwin's face was burned beyond recognition and the upper half of his body charred after a bomb intended for Japanese fighters inexplicably flew back into his B29 bomber.
Master Sgt. Jon Cavaiani's back, broken by North Vietnamese interrogators, went unattended in a prisoner of war camp. Gary Wetzel has a hook where his left hand used to be.
None of them can say what galvanized them during that brief -- some say, mindless -- moment of valor that earned them their medals.
"Temporary insanity," said former airman 1st class John Levitow, who, despite 40 shrapnel wounds, managed to remove an explosive flare that had been ignited in his gunship over Vietnam. Levitow saved the lives of four other crewmen.
Nor do the men know why they survived when others did not -- or whether, given the chance, they could repeat their deeds.
"The vast majority of these guys don't feel they deserve the medal," said Denis Kennedy, an assistant editor with Boston Publishing Co. who interviewed the medal's recipients over a two-year period for a book. "The hardest thing is to get them to actually tell you what they did."
Former specialist 4 Allen Lynch is a case in point. Asked for the story behind his medal, Lynch, a tall moon-faced Vietnam veteran, replied, "We got into an ambush in the Binh Dinh Province, and I went out and helped rescue some guys and . . . . " He shrugged. "And I survived."
Lynch's citation says that on Dec. 15, 1967, he dashed across 50 yards of open ground "through a hail of enemy fire" to give first aid to three wounded comrades. He killed two enemy soldiers at point-blank range, cleared a trench of bodies, then returned to the fire-swept area three times to carry the wounded to the safety of the trench.
While his company withdrew, Lynch remained with the wounded men and alone, defended himself for two hours against the enemy, using only his rifle and a single grenade. Then he crossed another 70 yards of exposed terrain five times to carry the wounded to more secure cover.
Confronted with the details of his deeds, Lynch smiled. "Okay," he said, "so I went out there and played John Wayne."
War stories are seldom told at the biennial convention, which this year drew 160 recipients, some with their wives, from as far away as Japan.
"We tend to reminisce more about past conventions than past wars," said one participant.
The members attended a reception hosted by Adolph Coors Co., clapped as a group of cloggers danced around the banquet hall, lifted drinks in salute to each other. Nebraska Gov. Bob Kerrey, who received his medal as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam, was ribbed that he had "gone Hollywood" because of his relationship with actress Debra Winger. Seiko presented each recipient with a special Medal of Honor watch, and new officers were elected.
When it was over, the men return to lives that are, for the most part, ordinary. Most resumed prewar occupations -- teaching, logging, real estate. Some went to work for the Veterans Administration, a job guaranteed to any Medal of Honor recipient. Others remained in the military. Few have avoided rides in a Veterans Day parade or patriotic speeches before Rotary luncheons.
The average society member is 60, and when the members meet again in two years, they realize that some faces will probably be missing.
"We're a disappearing breed, you know," said Lew Millett, 64, of Idyllwood, Calif., who received his award as a bayonet-wielding captain during the Korean War. "There are no more wars and we, well, we're all dying off."