Colonel Harvey Curtiss “Barney” Barnum on his saga of how he earned his Congressional Medal of Honor, and the ongoing kinship of all medal honorees.
By Brittany Bremer • Photography By Aaron Spicer
On the afternoon of July 21, 2014, Colonel Harvey Curtiss “Barney” Barnum arrived at the White House, where President Barack Obama would soon award the Congressional Medal of Honor to Staff Sergeant Ryan Pitts, the ninth living recipient to receive the military’s highest honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan. It so happened it was Barnum’s 74th birthday that day, and he was dressed in a light brown suit, accentuated by the distinctive light-blue-ribboned medal that hung from his neck. He sat in the front row of the East Room, to the president’s left, where Medal of Honor recipients always sit, with military personnel in full dress uniform behind him. In the minutes before the ceremony got started, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel strode over to him, greeting him warmly with a pat on the back, “Barney!”
The first such ceremony Barnum ever attended was his own, 47 years ago, on February 27, 1967. Barnum was the fourth Marine to receive the Medal of Honor for actions in the Vietnam War, for “gallant initiative and heroic conduct,” as the citation reads, at the Battle of Ky Phu in 1965. But his ceremony was not held at White House. Barnum’s official citation is signed by President Lyndon Johnson, but the former president did not preside over the ceremony, making Barnum the only recipient from Vietnam to not receive the medal from the Commander-in-Chief. “I’m told that the White House, Johnson, didn’t want to decorate me because he didn’t want the publicity at that time,” says Barnum.
Instead, Barnum was decorated by the Secretary of the Navy. There was supposed to be a parade, but it was too cold that day, so they held the ceremony in the John Philip Sousa Band Hall. Barnum’s family, college friends and Marine buddies were all there. “I just remember looking over and seeing how proud my mom and dad were,” he said. The circumstances surrounding his medal and his attitude regarding it say almost as much about the man as the actions for which he received it. But living as a hero has its complications.
“It’s very heavy to wear, very hard to wear at times because people put you up on a pedestal,” Barnum says while sitting in his home in Reston. “I never used it to get orders, never used it for my own benefit. But I’d be naive to believe that it wasn’t instrumental in getting me some of the things that I got.”
For all the perks and parades and photo ops, Medal of Honor recipients are highly visible, but they are not always listened to, their advice not always sought from the politicians who court them, but that has never stopped Barnum from saying what he believes.
“It’s all about the troops,” he says. “When I was in uniform, they were paramount. And I did the same thing in government. I was not politically correct most of the time. I said what I thought needed to be said, and didn’t care how it was taken, but it’s all about mission accomplishment, goal achievement, doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason.”
Born on July 21, 1940, Barnum speaks fondly of his childhood in the small town of Cheshire, Connecticut. His mother, Ann, was a homemaker, who made clothes for him and his brother Cliff. His father, H. Curtiss, worked multiple jobs, including as a volunteer firefighter—footsteps in which Barnum followed.
Ernie Hallbach, a hometown friend who volunteered with Barnum down at the firehouse, credits Barnum’s father, “a quiet man, but very American,” with instilling values of patriotism and duty. In high school, Barnum was class president of his freshman and senior class, displaying an aptitude for leadership that was further kindled in Boy Scouts, where Barnum served as patrol leader and led trips across the country.
After high school, Barnum left for Saint Anselm College, a small Benedictine Catholic liberal arts school in Manchester, New Hampshire. Active on campus, he joined the Platoon Leaders Class, one of the Marine Corps’ officer commissioning programs, which sent him to the Marine Corps Base in Quantico for two six-week summer training sessions. He graduated in 1962 with a B.A. in Economics, as a newly commissioned second lieutenant in the Marine Corps Reserve.
By 1965, Barnum had accepted appointment to the regular Marine Corps and was stationed at the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He volunteered for temporary duty in Vietnam, telling his commanding officer that as a bachelor he felt that he should be the one to go during the holiday season rather than sending a married man. Twenty-five years old and a first lieutenant, Barnum was assigned to Hotel Company “Company H,” 2nd Battalion as an artillery forward observer.
Only two weeks into his deployment in Vietnam, Barnum’s company was sent out to join the ongoing Operation Harvest Moon. Around noon, on December 18, four days into the operation, just as they were entering the village of Ky Phu, “all hell broke loose.” The North Vietnamese, well dug-in and camouflaged, had let three companies pass by. Then, as Company H was bringing up the rear, they ambushed the entire battalion at once.
“We were taken under intense fire. It was the first time I had ever been shot at. So, I hit the deck. And when I looked up from underneath my helmet, all these young Marines were looking at me like ‘Lieutenant, what are going to do?’” says Barnum.
Wesley “Doc West” Berrard, a corpsman, came running past, shouting, “The skipper’s down.” Captain Paul Gormley, the skipper, was fatally wounded and the radio operator had been killed instantly. West ran to treat the captain and was shot multiple times in the process. Barnum followed suit. “I ran out, amongst all this intense fire and picked up Captain Gormley, carried him back in my arms to a covered position. We talked, he was seriously wounded, and he died in my arms.”
Colonel James Callendar, who was Barnum’s Regimental Commander at the time, wrote the first draft of his Medal of Honor citation. In a letter he wrote to Doug Sterner, webmaster of homeofheroes.com and military historian, Callendar referred to that action, and what the battalion commander told him about it, as what had convinced him Barnum was deserving of the medal: “Harvey [Barney] was on the radio himself and called for the chopper to land on a small hill near the wounded men. The pilot responded that the hill was ‘too hot to land in,’ or words to that effect. Whereupon, Barney, with the radio on his back, walked out onto the hill and said to the pilot, ‘Look down here where I am standing. If I can stand here, by God, you can land here!’ And the chopper did, although the hill in fact was under fire at the time. Barney got his wounded out.”
But the battle raged on, and “the battalion commander talked to [Barnum] on the phone and said, ‘You know, skipper, you gotta come out. We can’t come get you. We’re in our own fight in the village. You’re own your own. If you don’t come out, you’re in there by yourself tonight.’”
Despite some casualties, they made it, against what they later learned were probably 10 to 1 odds. “We caught the enemy by surprise. No way did they think we would get up and run across that 500 meters,” says Barnum. He was the last one out.
Back at the command post after the battle, Barnum got up one morning and walked into the mess tent where the battery commander informed him that Lewis William Walt, Commanding General of the 3rd Marine Amphibious Force, had recommended him for the Medal of Honor.
In the summer of 1967, Walt was looking for a new travelling aide and he asked Barnum if he was up for the job. Aides didn’t last long with him, Walt told Barnum, but if he made it a year, he could have his pick of next assignment. Barnum accepted and headed to Washington, D.C.
When the year was up, Barnum reminded the general of his promise. Where did he want to go? asked Walt. “I said, ‘Back to Vietnam.’ He says, ‘You can’t go back to Vietnam, you have the Medal of Honor.’ I said, ‘Sir, you told me, if I last a year—it’s been 13 months—you’d send me anywhere I want to go. I want to go back to Vietnam.’”
For Barnum, it was simple: “There was a war going on. I believed in it.”
So Barnum returned to Vietnam in 1968 and became the commander of the same battery he had served in during his first tour.
Dan Hefner, 64, of Oak Park, Illinois, served under then Captain Barnum. Eighteen years old, right out of high school, Hefner says he was lucky to have had Barnum as his commanding officer. He was like an older brother. When one of his men got the dreaded “Dear John” letter, Barnum took him off duty and out for a few beers. But most importantly, he made it his “goal to make sure that each and every man that served under him got home alive,” says Hefner.
When the enemy attacked their firebase with mortars, Barnum was standing in a doorway of a bunker and was hit with shrapnel. Though not severely wounded, he was injured and subsequently added the Purple Heart, along with two Bronze stars, to his many military decorations.
After returning from his second tour in Vietnam, Barnum continued to serve in the Marine Corps, holding posts at Camp Lejeune, Marine Corps Base Quantico, Fort Leavenworth, Parris Island and the Naval War College. He served as chief of current operations of the United States Central Command. Finally, he settled in the District, where he became the deputy director of public affairs for the Marine Corps and then military secretary to the Commandant. In August 1989, he retired from the Marine Corps as a Colonel, after 27 years of service.
His days in uniform were behind him, but Barnum’s service to the country was far from over. At 49 years old, Barnum began his career in government.
During President George H.W. Bush’s administration, Barnum served as director of drug enforcement policy for the Department of Defense under then Secretary Dick Cheney. When President Bill Clinton was elected, Barnum left government for the private sector. In 2000, when President George W. Bush and Vice President Cheney were elected, Barnum was asked to return to government. As Barnum recounts, General Ray Davis, a fellow Medal of Honor recipient, visited Cheney during the first week of the new administration while Cheney was still unpacking. Cheney asked Davis what he needed and Davis replied, “Get Barney back in the administration.” They did as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy where Barnum would have oversight over the Navy and Marine Corps Reserves.
He thought this would be a pretty good “8 to 5” job, but then September 11th happened and everything changed. The Reserves, which hadn’t been called up in years, were mobilized. Barnum visited units before they deployed, made six trips to Iraq and Afghanistan and met with units as they returned. It was a job he was good at, and he loved it. “I got to be around Marines and sailors. And that’s my whole life. I dedicated myself to doing what’s good for them: If they needed something, I was their advocate,” he says.
When President Obama was elected, Barnum assumed he’d be out with the rest of the political appointees, but Secretary Robert Gates asked him to stay on as Assistant Secretary. Barnum agreed to do the job until the new person was selected and confirmed. And for four months, he did. But he quickly grew frustrated with the new administration. He no longer enjoyed his job, and he didn’t need to work, so he quit.
Now, he watches from the sidelines in frustration. “In my opinion, we don’t have a strategy right now. We’re shooting from the hip. And our president has no clue as to our national strategy and what has to be done,” Barnum says. He admits that some things could have been handled better by the Bush administration, but that they were very supportive of the military in a way this administration is not. As he sees it, the Obama administration’s refusal to listen to military leaders is the crux of the issue when it comes to failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He is passionate about this topic, but insists he’s not being partisan. “I’m not saying this because I’m Republican. I’m saying this because I love my country. I know. I’ve been in government, I’ve been in the military, I know what level we can do.”
Lately, Barnum spends most of his time with family at their river house near Reedville, in the Northern Neck. He and his wife, Martha, have two children from her first marriage, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
He and Martha met in 1989 on blind date arranged by a mutual friend. Martha was a widower and Barnum a longtime bachelor at 49. They hit it off immediately, and dated for three years before getting married at the house they still live in today in Reston.
Driving past the house, you might not know that one of the country’s great heroes lives there, but for an American Flag outside and, if the garage is open, the Medal of Honor license plate on Barnum’s car.
Inside, Barnum’s personal Medal of Honor flag, light blue with white stars and yellow trim, stands tall in his living room, his official citation hangs in the den. The rest of Barnum’s many awards and mementos are tucked away upstairs in his “I love me” room; photos of Barnum with military leaders and presidents line the room, including a recent photo of him and President George W. Bush. There are shadow boxes filled with medals, framed magazines of which he made the cover and a painting of Barnum that a high school student sent him.
Actually though, the room is not just all about him. Barnum pointed out a photo of his dad on the day he retired from the volunteer fire department. And there are racks of challenge coins, small medallions that signify membership in a military unit that are traded, given and collected as tokens of friendship. Barnum’s own coin has a miniature Medal of Honor inserted in the center, identifying him as a member of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
“When I first joined the Society there was over 300,” says Barnum, who once served as president of the club. “Now we’re down to 80, so we are a band of brothers. … There’s not too many left, only seven left from World War II, but they were our mentors. Those were the people we looked up to. They were our heroes. … And hell now, I’m the gray-headed guy.”
While members of the Society don’t hope for new members, because they don’t hope for new wars, they welcome them into the small and exclusive fraternity with open arms. And so, a half hour before the official Medal of Honor ceremony started on July 21, Barnum and a few of the other Medal of Honor recipients gathered in a room at the White House to welcome Staff Sgt. Pitts, 28, to their family, and to meet his: wife, Amy, and 1-year-old son, Lucas.
In his remarks, the president paid tribute to the array of families, by blood and by marriage, forged and chosen, welcoming “those who were there that day—Pitts’ brothers in arms and those who are going to be welcoming him into their ranks—the members of the Medal of Honor Society. We are very proud of them and we are honored by the presence of the families of our fallen heroes as well,” said Obama.
Though he has been to many ceremonies over the years, the induction of a new recipient is still a very emotional experience. “To be in that room, it’s pretty special to be in the White House and then to watch as the words are spoken.”
Pitts stood, tall and expressionless next to the president, as the military aide read his Medal of Honor citation aloud. The sole survivor from his outpost at the Battle of Wanat, in Afghanistan in 2008, Pitts dedicated his medal to the soldiers who died there. “The real heroes are the nine men who made the ultimate sacrifice so the rest of us could return home,” he said, in remarks to the press after the ceremony, and proceeded to read the names of each of the men.
“He is just a fine young man,” says Barnum. “He lauded those he served with—it’s not about himself. He is going to wear the medal with pride.”
The afternoon ended with a reception in the main foyer of the White House for Pitts and invited guests. Barnum chatted briefly with the Commandant of the Marine Corps, but then he slipped out. “At that point, it was their day,” he says.