The Medal of Honor is
America's highest award for military heroism. Teddy Roosevelt lobbied for one but
never received it, and General George Patton said "I'd sell my immortal soul for that
medal." Since World War II of the 838 men who earned it, 513 died for it.
During presentations of the
Medal of Honor during World War II President Harry Truman was known to often state,
"I would rather have the blue band of the Medal of Honor around my neck than to be
President." Then, as he would place America's highest award around the neck of
a REAL American hero, he confered both a great honor and a heavy responsibility.
Navy corpsman Don Ballard,
who received the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in Vietnam has said, "It's
harder to wear the medal than to earn it." Imagine taking a young soldier who,
in a moment of utmost terror and devastation demonstrated an act of immense valor and
intrepidity, then sending him from that war zone to our Nation's Capitol where he is saluted by generals and praised by the
President. His life is suddenly and irrevocably changed, his future no longer his
own, his lot in life the shared preservation of a unique heritage shared with men like
Sergeant York, Jimmy Doolittle, General Douglas MacArthur, Audie Murphy, and Theodore
Roosevelt, Jr. Though none of the men who humbly wear the small 5-pointed star that
hangs from the Medal's blue ribbon would ever admit it publically, over the course of a
lifetime it can come to "weigh a ton".
|Above: Vietnam medic, Medal of
Honor recipient Don Ballard spends time visiting with a disabled veteran of World War II's
D-Day invasion during patriotic July 4th activities.
The men who have
received the Medal of Honor uniquely represent a cross-section of our Nation as a whole.
They include a 14 year old Civil War drummer boy, a former slave, the sons of two
United States Presidents, a former pro football player, and even troubled teens who had
been told "join the military or go to jail". They hailed from
mid-west farm families, urban barrios, blue-collar steel cities, and New York "high
society". They come from all races, some born in the United States and others
born on foreign soil. World War II hero Silvestre Herrera was surprised to learn on
the day he received his draft notice, that he wasn't even an American citizen. The
man he had thought for 24 years was his father finally told him the truth..."You were
brought across the border from Mexico after your parents died when you were an infant, and
I've raised you as my own son ever since." Determined to serve his adopted
Country, Silvestre studied to become a U.S. citizen while fighting in Europe in action
that would not only bring him the Medal of Honor, but Mexico's highest award for valor.
Some of these heroes went on
to become household names, movie stars, or successful businessmen. Others settled
into quiet, simple lifestyles in their home-towns. Still others have died in poverty
and obscurity...forgotten by the Nation they gave so much to preserve. But all of
them lived humbly, awed by the aweson responsibility they carried in being recognized as
an American hero. Selcom, if indeed ever,
has a recipient used his medal for personal gain for profit. Rather, the Medal
becomes for them a symbol of the valor and sacrifice of their fellow soldiers who did not
receive the Medal, but never-the- less served and often died, to preserve freedom.
Canadian born Vietnam hero Pete Lemon recently told a group of 7th grade students,
"Whenever you see the Medal, you see millions of people out there who have given
their service and sacrificed for your freedom.
|Above: Pete Lemon presents an
award to a wounded, heroic sheriff's deputy in Colorado.
When the President
places that blue band around a young soldier's neck, he also confers on him the
responsibility to uphold the standards and dignity of all who have received it....he
becomes a living symbol of all 40 million Americans who have served the cause of freedom
in uniform. Though that hero's celebrity-status quickly vanishes, the personal
responsibility of the Medal recipient becomes a life-time commitment. For the rest
of his life he receives letters requesting photos and autographs, is asked to speak in
schools and before veterans' groups, and much more....usually without honorarium and often
at his own expense. Recently 77 year old World War II hero Desmond Doss, with only
48 hours advance notice, traveled 1500 miles from his home in Georgia to speak in 3
elementary schools when the previously scheduled Medal of Honor speaker fell ill and
couldn't attend. But that's not unusual for the man President Truman told upon
presentation of the Medal, "I consider this a greater honor than being
President." Desmond NEVER turns down an opportunity to speak to American youth
about patriotism, service and responsibility.
In 1965 the United States
Congress revised previous legislation regarding Medal of Honor recipients to provide each
with a monthly $100 pension (it is now $400). Desmond Doss used much of his small
pension, as well as other personal income, to help establish and fund the Civilian Defense
Rescue Service in Walker County, Georgia. In April, 1966 this newly organized group
worked around the clock in a dark, wet, gas-filled cavern to save seven boy scouts and
their leader who had become lost. Desmond himself spent more consecutive hours in
that cave, working harder, than anyone else.
|Below: World War II hero Bill
Crawford poses with Jason Phillips and his family after presenting an award to the 10 year
old boy for his outstanding community service.
The Medal of Honor is a National Treasure,
a monument not unlike the Iwo Jima memorial and others in Washington, D.C. and throughout
our Nation that stand in testimony to the courage and fortitude of the American spirit.
Imagine for a moment that our monuments could speak. What stories we could
hear if the Statue of Liberty could talk to us, how inspired as Americans we would be if
the faces on Mount Rushmore could relate their life stories.
That is what makes the Medal
of Honor unlike most other monuments to our heritage. Today the Medal has slightly
more than 150 voices to personally share stories of sacrifice and valor....role-models to
inspire future generations to continue the traditions that make America great. As a
Nation we must do everything we can to capture this moment while we still have
opportunity. Of those 150+ voices more than 100 are over age 65. The day will
come when, like the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore, there will be no voice for this
American symbol....only memories. One of our greatest American symbols is
endangered, soon to become extinct. As parents, as educators, as veterans, as
Americans we need to take every step we can to preserve this proud heritage.