By Neda Semnani
For every private thing we know about Members of Congress, there are still amazing stories that go unnoticed. This is one such story. Two, really: one of generosity and the other of bravery.
Former Rep. Pete McCloskey (R-Calif.) was wounded twice during the Korean War, and he’s carried two Purple Hearts that honor his service for decades. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) was a young Congressional staffer when she was wounded — shot five times — during a 1978 fact-finding mission to Jonestown in Guyana.
HOH recently learned that last Christmas, these two separate stories came together when McCloskey presented Speier with one of his Purple Hearts.
McCloskey invited Speier to his law firm’s Christmas party, made a speech and said he had been wanting to make this presentation for a long time.
“[They] made this big deal about me coming,” Speier told HOH.
Staffers aren’t recognized for their bravery and sacrifice, he said, but what Speier had survived was just as brave and awe-inspiring as any military sacrifice.
In 1978, 28-year-old Speier and her boss, Rep. Leo Ryan (D-Calif.), went to Guyana to investigate human rights violations against American citizens at cult leader Jim Jones’ compound. Jones was the founder of the California-based Peoples Temple.
Ryan organized the mission after many constituents complained that friends and family were being kept against their will.
Ryan, Speier, several reporters, the NBC news team and family members of the Peoples Temple followers headed down to the small South American country without a security detail. The U.S. Embassy couldn’t guarantee that the group could even get into the compound.
In a 2006 documentary about the Jonestown Massacre, Speier said she had an uneasy feeling about the trip from the beginning.
“I was in the process of purchasing a condominium in Arlington, [Va.],” she said in the film. “[And] I made the purchase contingent of my survival.”
She says she didn’t want her parents to be saddled with the mortgage if she didn’t make it back.
When the Congressional group arrived, members of the Peoples Temple began defecting. It was a young, unarmed Speier who recorded their testimonies. She alone escorted each defector to their cabins to collect their belongings as gunmen watched.
Ryan was attacked before the group left the compound for the airstrip. When they finally made it to the plane, they thought they were safe. But then a tractor-trailer pulled up and opened fire on the group.
Speier and Ryan crawled under the belly of the plane. Others ran into the forest. Still others fell where they were shot. Ryan was one of the casualties.
“I was lying there with my head down trying to pretend I was dead,” she said in the film. “I was shot on the right side of my body.”
She was covered with ants.
“I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is it.’”
Through sheer force of will and Guyanese rum, she survived 22 hours without medical attention.
“I live with [the memory of the massacre],” she tells HOH. “It is one of those things I never want to forget. I think about it a lot. Every time I sing the national anthem or say the Pledge of Allegiance, I think about the moment I was lifted on to the medevac plane.
“It was like being wrapped in the American flag.”
On Dec. 23 — 33 years later — Speier was given a Purple Heart.
She says it was one of the most moving moments in her life.
The medal is beautifully mounted and displayed in her Washington office.
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