ALISON STEWART, host:
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 in the morning.
(Soundbite of memoir "If Not Now, When?")
Colonel JACK JACOBS (Army Veteran; Author, "If Not Now, When?"): I throw a hand grenade into the bunker and scramble back across the open area, chased by snapping bullets until the grenade explodes. And 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.
STEWART: For his courage, he was awarded the highest military recognition, the Medal of Honor. He also has three Bronze 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, an outspoken member of the military community. Retired Colonel Jack Jacobs joins me now. Hi, Colonel.
Colonel JACOBS: Hello. Good to see you.
STEWART: Good to see you. Full disclosure, we were former colleagues, and we are friends.
Colonel JACOBS: We are - both of us are.
STEWART: Yeah. Colonel, we should mention that you were injured during that episode. What happened to you?
Colonel JACOBS: Well, I got wounded in the initial fire. We were in an ambush, and the enemy let us get through 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. My head is thick, and it doesn't really matter at the end of the day. I'm still - actually, I'm still picking bits and pieces 40-some odd years later out of my head and face. But I managed to survive.
STEWART: The title of the book is "If Not Now, When?" How does that apply to your experience in Vietnam?
Colonel JACOBS: Somebody asked me years later what was going through my mind except - 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. 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.
STEWART: The first part of your book, you write a lot about your childhood as a Jewish kid in Brooklyn. Why did you decide to start there? Why did you decide to go all the way back versus just concentrating on your military career?
Colonel JACOBS: Well, there are two reasons. The first is that the publisher said that he wanted a war memoir. And I said, well, OK, I'll do one, but it's not going to be one of these things where I say my head hurts all the time and all my friends are dead - I mean, nobody wants to listen to that - and that it was going to be funny. It would have to be funny. I've never not been irreverent and sarcastic and so on.
STEWART: There are parts of this book which are really just funny. Would you please read a little bit from page 36 for me, so people can understand?
Colonel JACOBS: This is about my small size, eh?
STEWART: How tall are you, by the way?
Colonel JACOBS: Well, I used to be five four. And now I'm, like, five two and a half, five three. Eventually I'll disappear altogether. Here we go.
(Soundbite of memoir "If Not Now, When?")
Colonel JACOBS: (Reading) Small animals possess strength way out of proportion to their physical size, and I could always do more pull-ups, push-ups, or sit-ups than anybody else, at least partially because there's so little mass to move around. I use very few resources and thus leave a tiny carbon footprint. And how much leg room do I really need? To me, the middle seat in the last row of economy feels like first class.
Colonel JACOBS: You liked that, did you?
STEWART: Well, I liked in the book that I could be so moved, so touched, and then just laugh out loud.
Colonel JACOBS: Well, I think life's like that, you know. And if you can't laugh, you know, your life is going to be very miserable indeed. And life's too short to be miserable, if you can possibly avoid it. You got to laugh.
STEWART: When young men and women approach you and say, sir, I want to join the services, I plan to join the services, what piece of advice do you give them? What do you want them to know? Or what questions do you want them to ask themselves?
Colonel JACOBS: Well, I - you're talking to a guy who is in favor of universal service. I think everybody who's been born or lives in a country that's free like the United States of America needs to make some contribution to the defense of the republic or to his community, individual community, a community at large. So young people who come to me, and quite a few of them do, talking about how they would like to serve, they're not going to get any argument from me. They never do.
STEWART: The name of the book is "If Not Now, When?" It is published by the Berkeley Publishing Group, written by Colonel Jack Jacobs and Douglas Century. Colonel, thanks for coming by.
Colonel JACOBS: It's - thank you very, very much for having me on the program.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.