Iraq, 2006 — A Navy SEAL named Michael Anthony Monsoor finds himself in the middle of the Battle of Ramadi, where U.S. forces are fighting for control of the Iraqi city.
An insurgent lobs a grenade, which lands between Monsoor and two other SEALs. Monsoor jumps on it, saving the lives of his team members. One man whose life was saved says later that Monsoor had “the best chance of avoiding harm altogether,” but said he never took his eye off the grenade. “His only movement was down toward it.”
France, 1917 — Private Elton Edward Mackin finds himself in France, fighting off Germans in World War I. He’s part of a new wave of U.S. troops who will fill in the depleted ranks of the 67th Company.
Mackie says the ranks are filled with “scared kids.” When told to fix bayonets to repel a German charge, the thought leaves him weak. The new recruits were nothing like the grizzled veterans from which they took orders. “We were too damned young and under fire too soon.”
America, 1777-1783 — Private Joseph Plumb Martin literally fights off starvation as he fights in the Revolutionary War. After the Battle of Germantown in 1777, he recalls “marching and countermarching, starving and freezing.”
He finds an ox spleen and eats it, only to suffer through his body’s hasty rejection of the horrid feast. Over one 30-hour period, his only sustenance is a few walnuts he finds on the ground. He later envies a squirrel that was at least smart enough to starve to death quickly. “We were absolutely, literally starved,” he would later write.
These are just some of the stories Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) tells in his new book, 13 Soldiers: A Personal History of Americans at War, which recounts how members of the U.S. Armed Forces coped with the hardships they faced in the nation’s 13 major military conflicts.
"We wanted to show people that ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they are called up on to do so,” McCain told TheBlaze.
The book arrives just before Veterans Day, and after a year of particular concern for veterans, after systemic problems were discovered at the Department of Veterans Affairs that McCain says have yet to be fully resolved.
McCain’s book in some ways shows that the treatment of veterans has always been lacking, from the moment the first shots were fired at America’s founding.
Martin’s story in the Revolutionary War is one of constant want, for food, clothing, and then later, for the promise of payment when the war ended in 1783. Despite fighting a war that literally made America free, it would take more than 30 years before Congress would pass a law providing some pension to any male serving the military for at least nine months.
Love of country and its ideals, it seems, inspired men to great deeds in war, even when the country they fought for couldn’t always provide the support those soldiers needed.
"At least we do take better care of the men and women who are serving these days, and we give them better benefits,” McCain said. “But we still have this problem of helping them reenter society, and hopefully we'll work on that, but it's still a problem."
But the military often behaved gracefully, serving as an equalizer of men of sorts, at a time when civilians were still divided by race. McCain’s book notes that in the War of 1812, most naval vessels were integrated, and experienced black sailors could even be promoted and give orders to the white crew.
The book recounts a letter from Commodore Isaac Chauncey, which was written after an officer under him complained about receiving black sailors. “I have nearly fifty blacks on this ship, and many of them are among my best men,” he wrote, nearly 50 years before the start of the Civil War.
In the modern era, advanced bombers and other technology has spared U.S. soldiers many of the grim experiences that soldiers faced decades and centuries ago. But that doesn’t put them out of danger.
McCain’s chapter on Afghanistan highlights the story of Monica Lin Brown, an Army medic who was sent to Paktika Province to help provide care to Afghan women. While on patrol, a Humvee hit a land mine, and Brown instinctively ran into a rain of bullets to treat U.S. soldiers.
She shielded them from the mortar fire that fell around them, and was later given the Silver Star, the first woman to do so since World War II.
"There is specialization, but there's still a requirement for incredible courage,” McCain said. "The capabilities of the medic are really remarkable, and she showed every bit of courage that anybody in the whole book did.”
McCain says one of his favorite chapters involves a tale from the Korean War involving Sergeant First Class “Pete” Salter Jr., the father of McCain’s co-author and Senate staffer Mark Salter. Salter served with Corporal Mitchell Red Cloud Jr. when they were attacked by the Chinese army in 1950.
Red Cloud was watching the perimeter when the attack started, and even after being hit in the chest, he kept up a steady crossfire that gave U.S. troops a chance to fight. Salter would later find his way to Red Cloud, who asked Salter to wrap him around a tree so he could continue to return fire from the spot where he would die fighting.
“Then Salter thanked him and started down the draw,” the book recounts. “He could hear the bark of Red Cloud’s Browning all the way down.”