The three 2010 recipients of The American Legion's Patriot Award, now in its fourth year of presentation to outstanding citizens who perform great deeds and acts of exemplary service, spoke with the Legion prior to the 92nd National Convention in Milwaukee, where they collected their plaques on the convention floor. Maj. David Howell, a member of the Michigan Army National Guard, brought an injured young boy home with him from Iraq and arranged for a total of five reconstructive surgeries; he had suffered burns in a house fire as an infant, and his interpreter father was later killed by insurgents. And Duane Jackson and Lance Orton helped alert authorities to a suspicious vehicle in bustling Times Square in New York City - which turned out to be a malfunctioning terrorist car bomb, which was later safely defused.
Q: What was it that most drew you to Mohammed?A: I first saw him in a gathering in a street. He kept looking at me. He and the other kids wanted candy, and the other kids looked at him funny. I got the interpreter to take a picture of Mo, and it haunted me. Then, when I found him through his tribal system, I realized he could speak English, and found out through that how his father had helped us.
Q: How hard was it to get him over here? Did you get any pushback?A: It was very hard. I had to get his family to trust me to follow through on it, and his mother eventually signed guardianship. I had to get a passport for him from the Iraqis. On top of that, my unit returned to the States in December 2008, and I kept working from here. I had contacts in the State Department and in provincial reconstruction working for me. Every time I came to a hurdle, I found someone to help me out.
Q: What was easy, and hard, about having him live in the States?A: I was a single dad working in the ER, who ended up having to go back as a civilian to get him. There was school, the plastic surgeon, etc. He actually stayed with an Iraqi host family - the father is a physician.
Q: What is your favorite memory? What did Mohammed seem to like best about the United States?A: Him at the house, playing sports - the kind of thing we take for granted. We got to expose him to many things on family outings. And Mo called me almost every weeknight.
Q: How hard was it to see him go back?A: It was a lot tougher than I thought it would be, with my family, the host family, the school, and Mo. He really wanted to stay. I went back to Baghdad with him.
Q: What's the status of the Martyr Medical Fund?A: It was set up to care for the children of interpreters who have died while serving. A family-support payment system has been set up. We are currently using funds to help support Mo's family and keep it together; there are six kids in all, and we want them to not have to go out for jobs or be married off yet.
Q: What did you get out of this, and what do you hope he got out of it?A: I'm still in contact with Mo almost every week. I've gained a much greater appreciation for the Michigan Muslim community - they were very supportive with raising funds, and helped Mo's stay be much more comfortable. Especially the East Lansing Islamic Center. It wasn't a dealbreaker, but the family's preference was that he be able to observe Muslim customs. It cut down on his culture shock. Mo saw what freedom is like, that this is a safe environment to grow up in. And I think he has a new drive for education, since his tribe is near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Maybe Michigan State University.
Q: What are your thoughts on receiving the Patriot Award?A: I was very grateful and surprised. I'm looking forward to the trip."
Q: What was the first thing you noticed that day?A: It was a beautiful day. On 45th and Broadway, there were nine shows going. The Revlon Breast Cancer Walk was at 10 a.m. It was practically peak time - maybe 20,000 people in Times Square. I saw the car. I could look right into it, although all but two windows were painted black. I saw the keys in it, the ignition on, the lights blinking. I thought a lazy theatergoer had left it there. After 12 years, you have to be alert. You never know if a pickpocket or fraud is watching. I was going to open the door, but a little voice said, ‘Don't.' Then the fuse went off and gray smoke started coming out. (Lance) Orton had sent an employee to get a cop to move the car. Firefighters showed up, and decided to bring in the bomb squad. They said, ‘It's a crime scene now.' The bomb would have had a 75-foot blast over three stories if it had worked. Myself, Orton, and others would have been the first fatalities. When I came back to my stand later, my merchandise was still there.
I saw the second plane go in on 9/11, and the 1993 WTC attack. Eighty five percent of that crowd was tourists; 45 percent was foreign. It was more annoyance than anything else, then curiosity. I just noticed that something didn't smell right. He (suspected bomber Faisal Shahzad) seemed to be living a good American life - why did he do it? He tried to hurt people on my block.
Q: How do you feel about the response you've gotten?A: People have thanked me from all over the world, especially Europeans. The response has been very positive. I've had foreign news articles given to me. It's humbling to think that people you've never met want to thank you.
Q: Are you a Legionnaire?A: I joined the Legion 16 years ago to get support for hawking laws for disabled veterans. I got my license from New York City to do street vending in 1989. I am a firm believer in the plight and causes of veterans, and am connected to different organizations. I volunteer in VA hospitals, including one I was once in. I'm a member of Post 758 in Jackson City, but not really active in that.
Q: What are you looking forward to in Milwaukee?A: To make my views heard. Will an Afghanistan vet take over my spot someday? I want to make sure it can happen, and that our benefits are heard.
Q: What was the first thing you noticed that day?A: There was a big party across the street; Sunglass Hut had disco music playing. It felt like there were too many people. Then I saw the SUV, and a trail of smoke. I'm experienced in this, and I thought that something might be rigged to the gas tank. It was getting worse, so I called the police to investigate. We went into the Viacom building. They didn't tell people what was going on - just to evacuate. Then there was chaos, because no one knew why. Then a cop was yelling my name on 44th Street. There were all kinds of groups asking all kinds of questions. They kept me until the next morning in the command center on 42nd Street, with no sleep or food. No reporters were allowed near me.
Q: How do you feel about the response you've gotten?A: I have mixed feelings. At first, I didn't know it'd become so big. I'm not a flag-waving kind of guy; I mind my own business. But I'm always aware of things around me. I've pointed things out before. I also want to acknowledge the three men who work for me, and who chose to stick by me: Wesley Weddington, Wayne Robertson and Sean Granger.
Q: Are you a Legionnaire?A: I've been a Legionnaire for 13 years. I'm active in all veteran activities.
Q: What are you looking forward to in Milwaukee?A: To getting the award itself. I did my duty. Once a soldier, always a soldier.