FORT HOOD, Texas -- A handcrafted quilt covers the backrest of retired Maj. Gen. Patrick H. Brady's couch, a tribute to his heroic feats during the Vietnam War.
Sewn on the 60-by-60 inch white quilt are eight vibrant red stars and eight matching majestic blue stars, centered and aligned in a symmetrical pattern. Encased in each of the 16 stars are a galaxy of smaller white stars.
For Brady, each star, large or small, holds a significant meaning, each one a potent reminder of the acts of personal courage that he undertook as an Army pilot, acts that earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor, our nation's highest award for valor.
As a young man in the 1960s, Brady shipped to Vietnam directly after flight school. During his tour, he exclusively flew helicopter ambulance evacuations, the kind of evacuation better known on the battlefield as a "dust off."
"The missions that we flew were the most dangerous kind of flying, because we were required to land on the battlefield," Brady explained. "But they were effective. You had a better chance of survival if you were wounded in the jungles of Vietnam than if you were in a car crash, simply because of that dedicated resource and a well-trained crew to fly those missions."
During the war, Brady quickly earned the reputation of one of the most skilled evacuation pilots. His fearless, innovative flying techniques enabled him to operate in conditions that turned most pilots around. It was for this reason that Brady was called on to make a series of difficult evacuations behind enemy lines Jan. 6, 1968.
His day began with two badly wounded South Vietnamese Soldiers, who were stranded in enemy territory covered in dense fog and smoke and required immediate evacuation. Despite the adverse conditions, Brady slowly descended, turning the aircraft sideward to blow away the fog and smoke with the backwash from the blades.
During his next mission, he faced the same challenges while also braving hostile conditions. Two helicopters had already been shot down on previous attempts earlier that day. Landing the aircraft under close-range enemy fire, Brady performed multiple evacuations to rescue each patient while his helicopter sustained heavy damage.
After switching helicopters in preparation for his third mission of the day, Brady set out to evacuate American Soldiers trapped on a minefield. During the evacuation, a crewmember detonated a mine near the aircraft, wounding both crewmembers and damaging yet another aircraft.
By the end of those missions, he had evacuated six severely injured patients, but he was just getting started. By the end of the day, Brady had used three helicopters to evacuate a total of 51 Soldiers.
"As far as fear goes, I never experienced it on the battlefield, for me it was a matter of my faith," Brady said. "My faith was a substitute for fear, and I just knew that if I died doing what I was doing, what better way to die? I mean, what better way for a Soldier to die than to be saving the lives of his fellow Soldiers?"
Brady is often asked whether he volunteered to do what he did during the Vietnam War. His reply each and every time is "no." According to Brady, there was no question about doing what he did. He didn't have to be asked twice, and he never volunteered; he just did it.
Today he believes all veterans share that same attitude toward duty. Veterans don't have to be asked to do the hard things; they just do them because they're patriots. They do them because they love their country, and they support and defend their country.
Every Nov. 11 the U.S. and its citizens honors all American veterans like Brady and express gratitude for their heroic efforts in the defense of the United States of America.
It was in this same spirit of commemoration and patriotism that Brady received the star- spangled quilt that today rests upon his couch. But this quilt's stars hold more meaning than just placeholders of freedom.
During a veteran's commemoration event in Knoxville, Tennessee, veterans of all branches, service members and roughly 50 Medal of Honor recipients gathered at the Knoxville Convention Center. For the event, the Smoky Mountain chapter of the Quilts of Valor Foundation had created customized quilts for the veterans and hung them around the convention center.
"Some guys had quilts with helicopters, Marine symbols and all these beautiful things on it," he remembered. "And I got to my quilt and thought, 'What the hell? It's nothing. It's just a bunch of big and little stars.'"
But the maker of the quilt wrote him a letter, explaining the design's significance. "'The big stars are the lives you saved and the little stars are the children and grandchildren that came because of those saved lives,'" a choked-up Brady recalled the letter saying. "And here I am complaining about that quilt."
No one asked veterans to do what they did, Brady said. They did it because of their values.
"Veterans are the vault of values," Brady said. "Values are important to veterans. Values are the shining example for all American citizens, especially for our children."
As Brady folded the quilt, the stars shown through his wrinkled hands, the hands of a hero forged on the battlefield a world and a lifetime away.