A Medal for a Hero

Joe Lanzon

How are you this morning Mr. Preston?” asked the cheery young nurse as she pushed his wheelchair towards the open terrace of St. Francis Retirement Home in Fleetwood. He smiled back but did not reply.

Jack Preston, now in his mid sixties, had been living in the Home for the last two years, since his beloved Sharon had died. He was born in the East End of Glasgow but had settled in Lancashire after marriage.

He was loved by the nurses because he gave them no trouble, kept mostly to himself and spoke very little. Occasionally, he also suffered from loss of memory.

There is some sunshine and you will like sitting here for some time before lunch” said the nurse. “Thank you” replied Jack, obviously delighted to be left alone with himself for some time.

He had no family and very few friends in Fleetwood. Some did visit him occasionally and spoke of events of many years ago. They mentioned war and guns and death in a far away place he did not know. He hardly remembered any of what they described.
Jack’s friends, who visited him when they happened to be in the area, were Robert and Paul, two of his Scottish colleagues from the ‘Highland Regiment’ which served in the Vietnam war years ago.

Robert and Paul knew Jack very well indeed. He was, in their eyes, a hero of that useless war in the Far East, fought in the deadly marshes of the rice fields, continuous rainstorms and, on many occasions, hand to hand fighting with the Viet Cong.
During one of the fiercest battles of this war, when the Highlanders were surrounded by hundreds of their enemy, it was Jack who, without fear for his own life, had pushed his way forward. He stood there like a super human firing left, right and centre until he was able to pave a path for his friends to escape probable annihilation.

But not only that. Although Jack was wounded after carrying out his sole mission, he went back and carried wounded colleagues to safety while the Viet Cong kept up their incessant fire. With blood oozing from wounds in his head and arms, he led his comrades to safety.

Robert and Paul, as well as other veteran Highlanders, including Col. McDougall, their Commanding Officer, had been for years recommending to the authorities that Jack’s exploit in the Vietnam War deserved a medal of recognition.

Also, the community of Fleetwood, including the town’s publication “Fleetwood News” had backed the Highlanders Veteran Association and had officially petitioned the Government and the Forces Authorities to give due and early consideration in giving Jack a medal of honour for his extraordinary feat, in face of heavy odds against him.

The community, including the staff and inmates at St.Francis Retirement Home, considered Jack as their hero whose bravery was unjustifiably being ignored by the authorities.

For the last two years there were numerous exchanges of correspondence, petitions, meetings and discussions between the Authorities and Jack’s backers – the Fleetwood community, the Town Council, the Veteran Highland Association and the Fleetwood News.

But the Authorities procrastinated. They listened, they discussed, they promised, they considered the backer’s arguments; they accepted that Jack deserved recognition for his bravery. But because of Government bureaucracy, the decision was delayed repeatedly and Jack was never given the medal he so deserved.

Jack did not, of course, know what was happening. He did not know that so many people were pushing for his recognition. He did not even remember the episode. Sometimes he did not recognize his colleagues Paul and Robert. Sometimes he did not remember who he was. Jack, often lived in a world of his own.

It took well over three years to enable the Authorities to process the petition and approve that Sgt. Jack Preston of the Highland Regiment be awarded the Distinguished Service Order (D.S.O.) for bravery and heroism during the battle for Da Nang Hill in Vietnam twenty years ago.

A Committee was set up to organize the ceremony for the presentation of the award. It consisted of high Government and Military officials who were entrusted to organize the presentation. Col. Ralph McDougall, the Commanding Officer of the Highland Regiment, Sir Godfrey Spencer, a respectable resident of Fleetwood and Robert Johnston, Jack’s war time friend were consulted.

H.R.H. the Duke of York had agreed to present Jack with the medal. The Regiment’s Band – with its pipes, drums and bugles – was to perform “Scotland the Brave” and “Blue Bonnets over the Border”.

It took some more months before everything was finalized and detailed preparations were made for the ceremony. Finally the Secretary of the Committee was directed to personally inform Jack Preston that the ceremony award of the DSO was to be carried out at ten on Sunday morning.

The Secretary, armed with all the details relating to the ceremony, went to St. Francis Retirement Home and sought out the nurse who, with dedication, looked after old Jack. He hoped that she would help him communicate the details to Jack and also help Jack prepare for the coming ceremony.

What can I do for you?” asked the young pretty nurse when the Secretary demanded to see her. “I’m the Secretary of the ‘Military Award Committee’, he informed her. “I have come to inform Jack Preston that he has been awarded the DSO and that the ceremony is to take place next Sunday morning.” The nurse gasped, held her breath and said “Jack Preston passed away last night of a sudden heart failure!” She closed the door in the Secretary’s face with deliberate utter contempt and went inside, where she sat on a chair and broke down in tears.