Students at St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights Monday began Veterans Day week with a visit from the Medal of Honor recipient whose Vietnam War heroism parallels that of the fictional Forrest Gump, and whose actual award-ceremony footage was cleverly used in the 1994 Tom Hanks film.
"You all know I'm the real Forrest Gump, don't you?" asked retired Army Sgt. Sammy L. Davis after the first question at an all-school assembly touched on him giving permission for use of the footage.
Students arrived in the gymnasium having already watched a video describing how the severely wounded Davis rescued three other wounded American soldiers during a battle with Viet Cong forces on Nov. 18, 1967.
President Lyndon Johnson presented him with the nation's highest military honor the following year.
He told students of how he suffered the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder from the battle, but that the war's commanding officer, Gen. William Westmoreland, later helped him overcome it by encouraging him to speak about his experiences.
Rather than use her turn at the microphone to ask a question, St. Viator sophomore Sarah Conneely thanked Davis for showing her how successful and honored a fellow PTSD sufferer could be.
Davis downplayed Sarah's efforts to suggest her experience didn't compare to his and gave her a hug as the audience applauded.
"That could very well be the reason I was able to make it here today," Davis said.
Another student remarked that in both the video and his live presentation, Davis referred to the Viet Cong as "the enemy" and suggested this could be seen as dehumanizing.
Davis said there was never hatred in his heart for the Vietnamese people on the other side and always respect. He uses the word enemy only to distinguish them from allies and friends.
Only last year, he and his wife went to Vietnam and met with five former enemies who had fought in proximity. Both groups explained through translators how neither had felt hatred toward the other, but merely an obligation to do their jobs.
"When we left that night, we left as brothers. Cool?" he asked.
Again, the assembly of 900 students responded with applause.
Davis later treated them to his harmonica rendition of the song "Shenandoah," which he learned to play in Vietnam after his mother mailed him the unfamiliar instrument under the false assumption that he might be bored, based on his deliberately vague letters home.
The song has become synonymous to Davis with the single great life lesson he learned in Vietnam.
"I hope it reminds you you're not losing until you quit trying," he said of the song.