We throw around the words “courage” and “honor” so much that it’s easy not to recognize when one is in the presence of the real thing.
But I was without doubt face-to-face Wednesday night with some of the most courageous men I have met — ever — at a dinner in New York sponsored by the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. The Foundation was created about a dozen years ago to support the select group of Medal of Honor recipients, then dating back to World War I. Today, the number of living recipients has shrunk as many members of the Greatest Generation have passed away. There are now only 81 alive, mostly from Vietnam era, and only a handful from the Afghanistan conflict.
To read and hear their stories is to be reminded of the sacrifices they, and so many others, have made to keep our nation free. (Read about all the Congressional Medal of Honor recipients here.) One of the 25 living recipients who attended the event was Sammy Davis of Indiana, who in 1967, as an Army private first class serving in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, stood up to a withering barrage from a much larger enemy force, while rescuing wounded comrades, firing weapons and refusing treatment for his own serious injuries. Today, Davis is a cheerful 65-year-old, who explains his actions this way, “I just didn’t stop trying.”
Another was Hershel Williams, who as a Marine corporal in February 1945 faced the Japanese on the island of Iwo Jima. Surrounded by concrete pillboxes and buried mines, Williams demonstrated extraordinary heroism, described in part in his Medal of Honor citation:
Covered only by 4 riflemen, he fought desperately for 4 hours under terrific enemy small-arms fire and repeatedly returned to his own lines to prepare demolition charges and obtain serviced flamethrowers, struggling back, frequently to the rear of hostile emplacements, to wipe out one position after another.
Having a chance to talk with men like these reminds me that while we still honor the service of the men who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam — as they are our fathers, brothers, husbands and friends — most of us know little of the men and women making equal sacrifices today in Iraq (until recently) and Afghanistan. The Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation is trying to address this gap, and preserve the legacy of the accomplishments of the brave medal recipients by undertaking an educational mission in American public schools. Recipients have traveled to schools to speak with students from second grade through high school, talking about their actions, and fielding questions about the quality of character that enabled them — and today’s heroes — to do what they did, and do.
I plan to follow some of the Foundation’s outreach to schoolchildren, and write about it in the future. I was also honored to receive a Foundation award for journalism.