BY DUANE A. VACHON, PH.D. In my job I have buried 4 star generals. I have met Emperors and Empresses, Heads of States, Prime Ministers and Presidents. All of this paled when last Wednesday October 3rd I had the honor and privilege to be part of the team that hosted 52 of the living Medal of Honor recipients.
They had gathered at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific to help dedicate a memorial stone dedicated to those who have received this nation’s highest military honor for bravery, the Medal of Honor.
There are currently 81 living Medal of Honor recipients. Having 52 of them gathered in one place at one time is quite an event. In view of the age of many of these recipients this will in all reality be the last time this many recipients will be together in one place at the same time.
The ceremony began with the 52 recipients gathered at an area known as the lookout for a private spiritual ceremony. This area is the highest point at the National Memorial Cemetery with views from Diamond Head to Pearl Harbor and beyond. A fitting place for this dedication ceremony to begin.
Should you ever be fortunate enough to have a close look at the Medal of Honor you might be surprised. It’s not nearly as impressive as many other medals I have seen. It’s not nearly as outstanding in terms of design as Olympic medals I have seen. What makes the Medal impressive is not its design, but what it represents. It’s not as big as many other medals and it’s not made of precious materials, the Medal of Honor is low key just as those who wear it.
Since the nation’s beginning, there have been 40 million men and women have served in the U.S. Armed Forces since America was founded. Only 3,500 have been recipients of this nation’s highest award for bravery, the Medal of Honor. There a few who have become household names like Audie Murphy, Alvin York and Eddie Rickenbacker. Most however, after leaving the military quietly faded back into the communities they had come from.
Does the name Bill Crawford mean anything to you? After leaving the Army in World War II, Crawford went to work at the Air Force Academy as a janitor where he worked for many years unknown to the young cadets who passed by him each day.
Most of you would have heard of Senator Daniel Inouye, a Senator from Hawaii who received his Medal as a Nisei serving in Europe. You most likely have not heard of Allan Kellogg. I am proud to say Kellogg is a friend and a man who works tirelessly to serve other veterans. Kellogg works for the VA in Hawaii helping homeless veterans to get back on their feet. Kellogg received his Medal for putting his own life on the line and saving the lives of other Marines in Vietnam.
In doing an article like this one I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the thousands of Medal recipients who didn’t come home. They represent by far the vast majority of Medal recipients. One of my favorites is Humbert “Rocky” Versace. When he arrived in Vietnam, Versace almost immediately developed a special place in his heart for the impoverished Vietnamese children. Versace spent every spare moment working to help the children for whom he had developed a special place in his heart and worked tirelessly on their behalf. Three weeks before he was due to rotate home, Versace was taken prisoner. The Viet Cong paraded Versace half-starved, through Vietnamese villages to show the villagers how weak Americans were.
The Viet Cong failed to take two things into account. Versace was fluent in Vietnamese and he certainly was not weak. As he was paraded through the villages he smiled and spoke kind words to the villagers he passed, to the dismay of his captors. After attempting to escape 4 times, Versace was beaten mercilessly and separated from other POWs because he was such a dominant force. Finally, after determining Versace could not be broken, the man who wanted to become a Catholic Priest and return to Vietnam after the war to help the children he befriended was taken to a nearby swamp to be executed. On the way to his death, Versace was heard by his fellow prisoners, in a final example of defiance, singing God Bless America in a loud and proud voice.
It was a great honor for me to attend the Patriots Dinner last night to stroll the decks of the USS Missouri and rub shoulders with 52 Medal of Honor recipients. Whilst I was not able to speak with all of them, those I did speak with had a couple of things in common. They were to a man very humble and also straight talkers. At a time when we are getting bombarded with politicians telling us how great they are and what jerks the other guys are, it was very refreshing to spend some time with these fellows.
At a time when our country has a moral and values deficit we need people like these Medal of Honor recipients to remind us of the character and values that built this country.