The narrator is in Milan. He and four other soldiers travel together each day to the hospital for physical therapy. This is where the narrator meets the major. The five companions are united in the fact that they are all soldiers, but the narrator realizes that he is not as brave as they are. Three of the soldiers have medals for bravery on the battlefield. Another was shot before he had a chance to prove himself. The narrator has medals for being accidentally wounded. He notes that he had been given medals simply for being an American. He adds:
I would imagine myself having done all the things they had done to get their medals; but walking home at night through the empty streets with the cold wind and all the shops closed, trying to keep near the street lights, I knew that I would never have done such things . . .
After the three brave soldiers read his papers concerning his medals, they look at him differently, perhaps recognizing that his awards are not as genuine as theirs are.
The major is a professional soldier and is the embodiment of bravery in the face of tragedy. The climax occurs when the narrator learns something from the major: how to be brave and how to face tragedy. The major is injured but he remains stoic and upright. When he learns of his wife's death, he is understandably distraught but he eventually composes himself.
And then crying, his head up looking at nothing, carrying himself straight and soldierly, with tears on both his cheeks and biting his lips, he walked past the machines and out the door.
For the narrator, and probably Hemingway as well, this is how a hero is supposed to act. A hero is strong and composed no matter what the situation is.