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Medal Of Honor Recipient Asks: 'If Not Now, When?'

Jack Jacobs was a first lieutenant fighting in the Vietnam War when he rescued 14 men during one particularly fierce incident. In his new book, If Not Now, When?, he recounts what happened on March 9, 1968, at 8:45 a.m.:

"I throw a hand grenade into the bunker and scramble back across the open area, chased by snapping bullets until the grenade explodes. I drag a wounded soldier with me. We do this over and over, inching forward, rifles spitting, hauling wounded friends back. Some are still alive, bleeding and in pain, but others have stopped bleeding, at peace and no longer overcome with the fear that strikes us all."

For his courage, Jacobs was awarded the highest military recognition, the Medal of Honor. He also has three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars. But his book, co-written by Douglas Century, doesn't dwell on these heroics, nor does it glorify war. It's an American story of a short, smart-alecky kid from Brooklyn and his life as a soldier — a soldier who becomes a hero and an outspoken member of the military community.

Jacobs, now a retired colonel, was also wounded on that March morning in 1968. "We were in an ambush," he tells his friend and former colleague, NPR's Alison Stewart. "The enemy let us get to within about 50 meters of their positions. There were about 300 of them, and I, along with just about everybody else out in the open, was wounded."

"I was wounded in the least significant portion of my anatomy — my head. Any other place would have been really bad news. ... Actually, I'm still picking bits and pieces — 40-some-odd years later — out of my head and face, but I managed to survive."

Jacobs says the title of his book relates to his experience in Vietnam.

"Somebody asked me, years later, what was going through my mind, beside the shrapnel. It was the realization that though everybody on the battlefield was killed and wounded, something had to be done. It was a genuine crisis. And I perceived that I was the only person who could do it," he says.

"And it's a throwback to an old line from Hillel, the first-century Talmudic scholar, who said, basically, 'If not you, who? And if not now, when?' And I thought that if I didn't do something, nobody else could, and I better do something. And so I did."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

United States & World BooksWeekend Edition Sunday