Tuesday, November 11, 2008

My dad on the Medal of Honor

Rock stars, athletes, politicians and celebrities are often labeled heroes by pop culture, but they're not.

America has many heroes. Some are folklore figures, such Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan. Some are legendary, such as Nathan Hale and John Paul Jones. Some are contemporary, the police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians who worked to rescue people in the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

But the greatest American heroes are those members of the U.S. armed forces who hold the Medal of Honor. Some are well known, Alvin York, Audie Murphy, Jimmy Doolittle, James Stockdale. Most are not. Regardless of their visibility, they share a common glory: they are the bravest of the brave.

The Medal of Honor is America's highest military award for combat valor. It is presented for "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty." It is awarded by the president on behalf of Congress, but its name is simply Medal of Honor, not Congressional Medal of Honor.

The story behind every Medal of Honor is told in a presidential citation presented when the medal is awarded. Fifty-Six Connecticut residents have been honored, including two from Waterbury, Army Capt. Edwin M. Neville and Sgt. George D. Libby. (The names of the 56 Connecticut residents appear on a bronze plaque at the state Capitol.)

The Medal is said to be awarded or received or earned, never "won." Recipients are not "winners." The Congressional Medal of Honor Society -- whose membership is limited to Medal holders -- notes that valor in combat is not a contest nor should it be considered an object of competition.

The medal has been earned by officers and enlisted men from all branches of service: infantrymen, sailors, pilots, medics and even chaplains. Recipients have been 17-year-old volunteers, career soldiers and military academy graduates. They have come from every state. They have been white, black, Hispanic, Asian-American and Native American. In every case they made personal sacrifices and exhibited selfless courage to save the lives of others. Our military respects recipients of the medal so highly that by tradition everyone in an American military uniform is supposed to salute them first. Even if the recipient is of the lowest rank, a general or an admiral salutes first. However, it is the medal itself which is saluted, not the person wearing it.

The Design and Use of the Medal

The Medal of Honor is made of bronze in the shape of a five-pointed star; it is suspended from a light blue silk ribbon with 13 white stars on it, and drawn close at the neck. The recipient's name is inscribed on the back. The medal has changed several times since it was first created in 1862 by the War Department. Today there are three variants -- one for the Army, one for the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard, and one for the Air Force. Variations in design reflect each branch of service, such as an anchor for the Navy, Marine and Coast Guard, an eagle for the Army and lightning bolts for the Air Force.

On formal or special occasions the medal is worn around the neck, above all other decorations, whether the recipient is in uniform or civilian attire. It is the only military medal which may be thus worn. When in uniform, a service ribbon similar to other military decorations is worn above the left breast pocket in lieu of the medal. For civilian attire, a small six-sided silk rosette with 13 stars is worn in the lapel. When the recipient is no longer in the military, he can still wear the Medal of Honor in public, either the full dress award or the rosette.

The History of the Medal

Of the 40 million Americans who have served in our armed forces since the Continental Army was formed in 1775, fewer than 3,500 men and one woman have received the Medal of Honor. It was instituted by Congress in 1861 and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln. From the beginning of World War II until now, fewer than 900 men have received the medal. Only 101 recipients are still alive.

Since World War II, more than 60 percent of the medals have been presented posthumously. Of the 238 men who earned the Medal of Honor in Vietnam, 63 sacrificed their lives by absorbing the blasts of grenades or land mines to protect the men around them.

Fifteen sailors earned the Medal of Honor during the Pearl Harbor invasion but only five survived it. One of the recipients was Thomaston-born Thomas James Reeves, a radio electrician aboard the battleship USS California. After the ship's mechanized ammunition hoists were put out of action, Reeves, on his own initiative, in a burning passageway, assisted in supplying ammunition by hand to the anti-aircraft guns until he was fatally overcome by smoke and fire.

The Medal of Honor was originally just for Navy enlisted men. It was "to be bestowed upon such petty officers, seamen, landsmen, and Marines as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry and other seamanlike qualities during the present war." It was extended to the Army the next year and in 1863 Congress extended it to officers as well.

Over time, criteria became more stringent. In 1897 regulations were published establishing that the Medal of Honor could be awarded only for "gallantry and intrepidity" above and beyond that of one's fellow soldiers. Further, consideration for the medal had to be made by a person other than the one who performed the heroic deed. One or more eyewitnesses must testify under oath to the heroic deed, and the recommendation has to be submitted within one year of the action.

In 1916 the War Department established a Medal of Honor review board to consider all previous awards with the intent of undoing awards not given for combat valor. The next year the names of 911 recipients were stricken.

The Society

The Congressional Medal Of Honor Society was created in 1958 by President Eisenhower and the Congress. The Society is headquartered on the hangar deck of the retired World War II aircraft carrier, USS Yorktown, moored at Patriot's Point, S.C., across from Charleston.

The Society headquarters maintains the Medal of Honor Roll and voluminous files about the Medal of Honor recipients. It coordinates activities related to the medal and runs a museum open to the public at no charge.

The museum details the medal's history. Panels list all recipients. There are other permanent and rotating displays.

Today, the society tells us, the number of living recipients, 101, is at its lowest point in history. Thus the Society has the challenge of maintaining a heritage in danger of vanishing. Society members meet for an annual reunion and have smaller gatherings from time to time.

The irony for these living members is this: because the medal can only be received for wartime heroism, these veterans hope that the society itself will cease to exist, that there will be no new wars and therefore no new inductees.

John White

1 comment:

TetVet1968 said...

America's oldest living Medal of Honor recipient, living his 100th year is former enlisted Aviation Chief Ordnanceman (ACOM), later wartime commissioned Lieutenant John W. Finn, USN (Ret.). He is also the last surviving Medal of Honor, "The Day of Infamy", Japanese Attack on the Hawaiian Islands, Naval Air Station, Kaneohe Bay, Oahu, Territory of Hawaii, 7 December 1941.

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