FORT BENNING, Ga.—The word "hero" has been so debased and over-used in our modern society that it is almost meaningless when applied to the real thing.
This past week, here at the U.S. Army home of the infantry, several hundred people gathered for the dedication of a larger-than-life bronze statue of a real American hero named Rick Rescorla.
The statue is iconic: the young infantry 2nd lieutenant platoon leader leading the way in combat, his M-16 rifle with bayonet attached ready for use. It is based largely on the photograph on the cover of the book "We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young," written by Lt. Gen. Hal Moore and me, which tells the story of the deadly battles in the Ia Drang Valley in the dawn of the Vietnam War.
Rescorla was a hero of the battles of Landing Zone X-Ray and Landing Zone Albany. He earned a Silver Star, the third highest military medal for heroism, for his sterling leadership of a platoon of Bravo Company 2nd Battalion 7th U.S. Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) in those battles in November of 1965.
But that statue in the home and headquarters and training ground for the mud-foot infantry was the result of unvarnished heroism long after the British-born Rescorla left the Army, became an American citizen and retired from the Army Reserve with the rank of colonel.
The statue of the young Rescorla was born out of what he did as an older, heavier civilian vice president for security for Morgan Stanley in New York City. The brokerage firm occupied 22 floors of the south tower in the World Trade Center.
Ever since the failed terrorist truck bombing in 1993 in the basement of that building, Rescorla was convinced that the terrorists would come back to finish the job. He urged Morgan Stanley to build its own low-rise high-security headquarters across the river in New Jersey where most of its employees lived. Not possible, he was told, because the firm had a long-term lease on those 22 floors.
Rescorla fought for the time and money needed for half a dozen surprise full evacuation drills each year. And, yes, he knew how much it cost to pull a couple thousand stockbrokers off their telephones. He knew and didn't care.
On September 11, 2001, Rescorla stood at the window of his office on the 66th floor and watched the tower across the way burn. The Port Authority Police squawk box on the wall urged everyone in the other buildings of the Trade Center to remain at their desks and not panic. You are safe, the reassuring voice said.
Rescorla responded with a curt word: "Bull__!" He grabbed his bullhorn and moved floor by floor ordering Morgan Stanley's 2,700 workers to evacuate immediately. They knew where to go and how to do that, thanks to Rick. Two by two, the old buddy system, they began the long walk down the stairs to the street.
Halfway down the second hijacked airliner plowed into their building. The building shook and swayed to the impact. Smoke began filling the stairwells. People were frightened. Rick Rescorla used his bullhorn again. This time he sang to the evacuees, just as he sang to his soldiers on a long night in Vietnam. He sang "God Bless America." He sang the songs of the British Army in the Zulu Wars. He sang the old Welsh miner songs.
He got them all out and headed for safety down the streets away from the World Trade Center. Four of his own security people were still up clearing the Morgan Stanley floors so Rick Rescorla turned and headed back up the stairs with New York City firemen. None of them made it out alive and neither did Rick Rescorla.
His widow, Susan, spearheaded the drive to raise $100,000 to create that bronze image of her hero and ours. Eventually it will occupy a spot on the Walk of Heroes in a new $76 million Infantry Museum being built at the gates of Fort Benning. More than 500 people turned out to see it unveiled outside the Infantry Museum on the old Army post.
Among them were plenty of other real American heroes. There were three recipients of the Medal of Honor for heroism above and beyond the call of duty. Scores of veterans of America's wars of the past half-century and more. Also, Gen. Moore and his sidekick Sgt. Maj. Basil L. Plumley.
As I sat there looking at the statue of Rick my mind carried me back 40 years to that terrible November in Vietnam and the words of the young Rescorla as he and his battle-weary soldiers strode into the surrounded position at LZ Albany to rescue their decimated battalion: "Good, Good, Good! I hope they hit us with everything they got tonight—we'll wipe them up."
You want a definition of the word hero? In my dictionary it says simply: Rick Rescorla.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young