Reagan's theme of 'peace through strength' plays well to America's war heroes

Among a friendly group of battlefield heroes, President Reagan renewed his call for a strong United States military and defended the use of US troops in the Middle East and Greneda.

''History,'' Reagan said, ''doesn't offer many crystal-clear lessons for those who manage our nation's affairs. But there are a few, and one of them surely is the lesson that weakness . . . inevitably brings on a threat to that freedom. Tyrants are tempted. With the best intentions, we have tried turning our swords into plowshares, hoping that others will follow. Well, our days of weakness are over.''

The members of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society - veterans who have received the nation's highest award for battlefield bravery - burst into applause as Reagan pledged to continue defending American interests. ''Now the world knows that, when it comes to our national security, the United States will do whatever it takes to protect the safety and freedom of the American people,'' Reagan said.

With terrorist attacks in Lebanon and Kuwait foremost in the news, security was tight at the New York hotel where the President spoke. The luncheon dedicated the opening of the society's Hall of Honor on the USS Intrepid, which is docked here permanently as the Sea, Air, Space Museum.

''If we turn a blind eye and a deaf ear when totalitarian regimes brutalize the hopes and dreams of people, we demean the valor of every person who struggles for human dignity and freedom - and we also demean all those who have given the last full measure of devotion,'' the President said.

''Peace with freedom is the highest aspiration of the American people. We negotiate for peace. We sacrifice for it. We will never surrender for it. Our commitment to arms reduction is unshakable. We'll not give up our search for peaceful solutions in the Middle East or Central America or elsewhere.''

The President referred to the US troops in Lebanon, who have suffered more than 250 fatalities in the last three months of peace-keeping, and to the American-led invasion of Grenada as 950 combat troops of the 82nd Airborne began their scheduled departure from the Caribbean island.

On Saturday, about 175 members of the society - including two veterans of World War I - visited the Hall of Honor on the aircraft carrier. They applauded vigorously as New York Mayor Edward I. Koch spoke of ''the courage of the marines in Lebanon.''

''This is not a discussion of whether or not they should be there,'' he said. ''But so long as they are there, they deserve the utmost protection. . . . They are not sitting ducks or diplomats, but soldiers and marines. They should be permitted to defend themselves and take after the enemy.''

Most recipients support the presence of troops in Lebanon.

''I think they ought to be there,'' says Clarence Craft, a retired construction worker from Fayetteville, Ark., who won his medal at Okinawa for breaking through a defense line and allowing a company to advance. He later served in Korea. ''There is a price we pay for peace.''

''They are there for a mission . . . to help preserve peace,'' says Marine Col. Jay Vargas of San Diego, who won his medal in Vietnam.

Still, there is an undercurrent of questioning among some in the group. All are proud and supportive of the marines. But there is insistence that the marines be allowed to defend themselves.

''I was very opposed originally,'' says Robert Dunlap of Monmouth, Ill., a retired teacher and coach. He won his medal at Iwo Jima. ''I am grateful that they have the opportunity of defending themselves.''

''Unfortunately the marines are in a very vulnerable position,'' says Richard Sorenson of Reno, Nev., who smothered a grenade with his body to save a machine-gun nest on the Marshall Islands in World War II. He says their position could be changed by stationing the marines offshore and ferrying them in each day, or by giving them different ground to protect.

The nonprofit charitable group is composed of the 259 living recipients of the Medal of Honor. The medal has been awarded 3,414 times since the Civil War.

Aboard the Intrepid, patriotism unfurled as the Congressional Medal of Honor winners and their families and guests said the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag.

''Patriotism is on the upswing,'' says Matt Urban of Michigan, who received seven Purple Hearts along with the Medal of Honor for valor in World War II.

Mr. Sorenson, who is a regional director for the Veterans Administration, sees evidence of this patriotism in the ''tremendous'' voluntary service for military duty, the increased enrollment in the Reserve Officer Training Corps, and the way the public has reacted to Lebanon and the invasion of Grenada.

Camaraderie was evident among the recipients. Mr. Urban says that when the recipients meet once a year there is a lot of hugging. ''We're all brothers. I love the guys who saved my life more than my own brother.''

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