TAMPA — Was there a moment from the war that he would remember forever?
Harold Fritz paused briefly, recalling the 1969 ambush in Vietnam and the actions that saved his platoon and earned him the Medal of Honor.
"I was looking up and everything was moving in slow motion," he said. "And I could hear sounds, but I really wasn't there. But then, bam! I was back in the action again.
“It was the weirdest sensation I had. I’ll never forget it.”
It was 20 minutes into Fritz’s visit Wednesday to Farnell Middle School, a meeting that began predictably with students chattering, shuffling homework papers and fidgeting with their phones.
By then, the cafeteria had grown quiet as 300-plus inhabitants shared the collective realization that they were in the presence of a war hero.
Fritz, 75, is one of 71 living recipients of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest, and rarest, military decoration. Members of this shrinking fellowship gathered this week for a convention in Tampa, and their schedule took them to several schools in the area.
Fritz said he spends as much time as he can conversing with the next generation — the people who, as he sees it, have a shot at ending war.
He starts out softly. Not with that Jan. 11, 1969 day when then-Army Lt. Fritz when his company were ordered to “sweep” a highway near Quan Loi to make sure it was safe for a supply convoy. Suddenly the armored convoy found itself ambushed by more than 100 enemy soldiers, who killed his two gunners and wounded Fritz before he could scrape together a response.
Instead, he spoke Wednesday about the salaries of teachers and administrators, which are so much lower than athletes or actors. He told the students what they do on their electronic devices is nowhere near as important as their face-to-face interaction with human beings.
The grim details of combat followed their’ questions, which came slowly at first.
The Congressional Medal of Honor Society website gave this account of Fritz’s actions that day: The wounded platoon leader ran from vehicle to vehicle to re-direct his troops, deliver ammunition, help the wounded and bolster their defenses, in full view of enemy troops who threatened to overrun his platoon. At one point, he leaped to the top of his burning vehicle to issue commands. He repelled one enemy charge with a machine gun and led an assault to blunt another one.
When help finally arrived, Fritz refused medical assistance until his fellow soldiers had been treated and evacuated.
“It was the work of the team there, my men, that made the difference that day,” he told the students. “It was a matter of Americans fighting together.”
Seventh-grader Denis Pukhalenko, 12, asked Fritz what was going through his mind at the time.
“You think about your men," Fritz answered. "You think about trying to survive that battle, get your people out of there.”
They asked if he lost anybody close to him. Sure, he answered. Those two gunners were family, like everybody else.
They asked about the food, about basic training. Hailey Szymanski, 12, asked, “Were you affected by Agent Orange?” That was the defoliant that the American military was exposed to in Vietnam, now blamed for a rash of serious health problems.
Yes, Fritz told her. “I just finished cancer treatment.”
Details of his family life trickled out. Fritz’s parents were blue-collar, the children of immigrants. So Fritz, a married college student who wanted to start a family, cut back his class hours so he could work.
He was drafted at 21. His wife is still with him, after 55 years of marriage. Two of his children were with him when President Richard Nixon placed the medal around his neck in 1971.
Student Anabelle Niles, 13, asked if Fritz had any regrets about his service.
“If I had to do it again, I’d do it again,” Fritz told her.
The retired Army officer was introduced to the students by Marine Sgt. Christian Phosy, 23.
“There’s a lot of history in the room right now," Phosy told the students. “A lot of my peers, a lot of Marines, have never met a Medal of Honor recipient before and I’m one of them. This is an honor for me. I’ll try to take every picture.
"Every time he drops something, I’ll pick it up, just to say, ‘I got it from Mr. Harold Fritz.'”
They ran out of time, with dozens of hands still in the air. A few students ran in for selfies. Then everybody wanted a selfie, and one of the guidance counselors had to try and line them all up.
The students may or may not remember some of the more abstract ideals Fritz shared at the beginning of his talk. He told them that “if you look at the United States as a puzzle, made up of millions of pieces, each one of you has a piece of the puzzle.” He cautioned them to “never, never disregard the importance of education. The smart American is the one American who’s going to keep this country free.”
However, they may remember Fritz’s answer to this student question: How long did the Vietnam War last?
“Too long,” he said. “Any war lasts too long.”