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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Conscientious Objector Who Won the Medal of Honor

Religion and military service can come together in unexpected ways.

On this day in 1945, President Truman awarded the Medal of Honor to 15 servicemen. He said:

As I have told the rest of these young men who have been here before me, I would much rather have that Medal around my neck than to be President of the United States. It is the greatest honor that can come to a man. It is an honor that all of us strive for, but very few of us ever achieve.

Now these young men will go back and become citizens of this great country, and they will make good citizens; and you won't find any of them bragging about what they have done or what they propose to do. They are just going to be good citizens of the United States, and they are going to help us take this Republic to its leadership in the world, where it belongs, and where it has belonged for the past 25 years.

One of them was Desmond T. Doss, an Army medic who saved dozens of fellow soldiers during the Battle of Okinawa. He was the first conscientious objector ever to receive the award. From his 2006 obituary in the New York Times:

Mr. Doss, a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, was guided all through his years by a framed poster of the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer that his father bought at an auction when he was growing up in Lynchburg, Va. That poster depicted Cain holding a club with the slain Abel beneath him.

"And when I looked at that picture, I came to the Sixth Commandment, 'Thou shalt not kill,' " Mr. Doss told Larry Smith in "Beyond Glory," an oral history of Medal of Honor winners. "I wondered, how in the world could a brother do such a thing? It put a horror in my heart of just killing, and as a result I took it personally: 'Desmond, if you love me, you won't kill.' "

When Mr. Doss was drafted in April 1942 after working in a shipyard, he was given conscientious objector status, having declined to bear arms because of his religious principles. He became a medic, the only way he could adhere to the Sixth Commandment as well as the Fourth Commandment, to honor the Sabbath. Seventh-day Adventists consider Saturday the Sabbath, but Mr. Doss felt he could serve as a medic seven days a week since, as he put it, "Christ healed on the Sabbath."

A trailer for a documentary about Doss: