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Fallen but not forgotten: Pfc. James Monroe

By John Rutherford, Producer, NBC News, Washington

"Medal of Honor," a 90-minute documentary airing Nov. 5 on public television stations around the country, pays tribute to the 3,473 recipients of the nation's highest military award since its creation during the Civil War.

Among those recipients was Army Pfc. James Monroe, a college classmate of mine who was killed in South Vietnam in 1967 when he threw himself on a live grenade.

"Through his valorous actions, performed in a flash of inspired selflessness, Pfc. Monroe saved the lives of two of his comrades and prevented the probable injury of several others," his Medal of Honor citation reads in part.

Rick Olson, Monroe's best friend, was not surprised by Monroe's heroics.

"He was a medic, and I don't think he would have had a second thought about, you know, throwing himself on the grenade," Olson said recently.

Monroe and Olson grew up together in Wheaton, Ill., and went off to college together at Washington & Lee University.

"He was very fun loving and kind of irreverent at times," Olson remembers. "He loved to laugh and have a good time."

Monroe studied political science in college but dropped out before graduating and was drafted into the Army. Olson last saw Monroe when his friend was home on leave in August 1966.

"He was gung ho," Olson said. "He was into the war and especially the camaraderie and the brotherhood of soldiers kind of thing. He was very upbeat, and at that time the war wasn't as unpopular as it became, and he was doing okay with that."

Olson pulled out an old newspaper clipping in which Monroe was quoted as saying of the men he served with, "It gives me great pride to see these young guys take a hard job they don't understand and do it - and do it damn well."

Monroe entered the Army in June 1966, shipped off to Vietnam in November and died on Feb. 16, 1967.

"The time was so short," his mother later said.

Olson was in the Army himself, stationed in Panama, when he received word from his parents that Monroe had been killed.

"Good friend," Olson said. "Old friend. Childhood friend. Just a nice guy to have around."

Monroe's parents received his posthumous Medal of Honor from then Secretary of the Army Stanley Resor at a White House ceremony on Oct. 17, 1968, which, by coincidence, would have been Monroe's 24th birthday.

A junior high school was named in Monroe's honor in his hometown of Wheaton, and a room at the Wheaton hospital also carries his name. A memorial plaque in his name was unveiled at Washington & Lee in 1986.

Monroe is buried in his family's plot at the Wheaton Cemetery, along with his parents and his older brother.

He was 22 when he died. He would be 64 today.

Family photo of James Monroe.

Click here to view tributes to the 431 service members killed this year in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the following nine casualties from last week:

1. Army Spc. Justin Saint, 22, of Albertville, Ala.

2. Army Pfc. Heath Pickard, 21, of Palestine, Texas.

3. Army Capt. Robert Lindenau, 39, of Camano Island, Wash.

4. Marine Lance Cpl. Stacy Dryden, 22, of North Canton, Ohio.

5. Army Spc. Deon Taylor, 30, of Bronx, N.Y.

6. Marine Cpl. Adrian Robles, 21, of Scottsbluff, Neb.

7. Marine Lance Cpl. San Sim, 23, of Santa Ana, Calif.

8. Air Force Staff Sgt. Brian Hause, 29, of Stoystown, Pa.

9. Army Pfc. Cody Eggleston, 21, of Eugene, Ore.

Washington Producer John Rutherford is a decorated Vietnam veteran. He also posts stories on the military at www.fieldnotes.msnbc.com (click on "John Rutherford" under "categories") and at http://john-rutherford.newsvine.com. The first tribute gallery can be found at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22802019/ and the second at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/27336564.