American Legion National Commander Clarence Hill with Duane Jackson, Maj. David Howell and Lance Orton, Sr., who received the Patriot Award at the 92nd American Legion National Convention in Milwaukee, Wis. Photo by James V. Carroll

Patriot Award honors three recipients

The American Legion has presented three individuals with its prestigious Patriot Award - an honor given to recognize great deeds and exemplary acts of service. This year's recipients are Maj. David A. Howell, a physician's assistant who brought a disfigured Iraqi boy to the United States and secured life-altering medical treatment for him; and Duane Jackson and Lance Orton Sr., two Legionnaires who alerted authorities in New York City to an SUV strapped with explosives, helping thwart the would-be terror plot of the "Times Square Bomber." The awards were presented by National Commander Clarence Hill in a ceremony at The American Legion's 92nd National Convention in Milwaukee.

Jackson, an Army veteran, and Orton, a Navy veteran, were honored for the vigilance they showed on May 1, when they almost simultaneously spotted a dark-colored Nissan Pathfinder suspiciously parked in a No Standing Zone in a busy section of Times Square. The vehicle appeared abandoned, with its hazard lights flashing, engine running and keys in the ignition. It was enough to draw the concern of Jackson and Orton - two longtime street vendors who often report pickpockets and hustlers to police. The two disabled Vietnam War veterans each told nearby officers about the Pathfinder, which started filling with smoke and emitting popping and cracking sounds.

After numerous police officers and firefighters secured the scene, specialized units were called in to address the threats of explosive devices and terrorist attacks. A crude makeshift bomb made of fireworks, propane tanks, gasoline and alarm-clock detonators, was discovered. Authorities later apprehended Faisal Shahzad, a 30-year-old Pakistani-born U.S. citizen who later admitted guilt in the failed bombing attempt.

"There is no telling how many innocent men, women and children would have died had it not been for the brave actions of these Patriot Award winners," Hill said.

Orton and Jackson became celebrities of sorts, being interviewed on national news programs, receiving honors for their acts and even getting a commendatory telephone call from President Obama.

"We dodged a bullet," Jackson said. "We're a family out here. We have to look out for each other."

"I'm not a celebrity. I'm just an average Joe," Orton added.

Maj. Howell's efforts didn't capture the attention of the nation or gain him celebrity, but they're equally commendable and deserving of recognition. Howell, an Army National Guard officer from Michigan, was responsible for securing medical treatment for a 13-year-old Iraqi boy whose head was badly disfigured in a house fire. Howell, a physician's assistant, was on a mission in November 2008 with his unit to protect a gathering of Iraqi women and children in Ramadi, about 70 miles west of Baghdad. It was there that he first encountered Mohammed, a young, fatherless Iraqi boy who would become a focal point of his life for the next six months.

Upon their first meeting, Mohammed's mother removed the cap from her son's head, exposing a badly disfigured head. Mohammed asked Howell, in simple but explicit words, to save him.

"I felt an obligation as an American to do something for this family," Howell said. "If I was going to try to do something, this was it."

Howell spent the next six months cutting through bureaucratic red tape and securing funding to bring Mohammed to the United States, where he could be placed under the care of proper medical practitioners. Howell set up a foundation to sponsor Mohammed, and found a Muslim host family willing to house the young Iraqi boy. After securing permission from the proper authorities, Howell successfully exported Mohammed to the United States, where he received $100,000 worth of medical treatment, all of which was paid for by the foundation Howell founded.

Mohammed eventually found himself in Michigan, where he was placed under the care of Dr. Edward Lanigan, a Michigan State associate professor of surgery who performed a series of reconstructive surgeries on Mohammed free of charge. The procedures significantly changed the life of Mohammed, who is currently living with his family in Iraq. The fund Howell established, the Martyr Medical Fund for Children, continues to assist other children of Iraqi interpreters killed in the line of duty.

"Death and destruction will always remain a part of war - but our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen have always gone to great lengths to protect and assist the civilian population," Hill said. "Maj. David Howell of the Michigan National Guard epitomizes the compassion that our soldiers have for innocent civilians. He played a key role in ensuring that the young boy, Mohammed, received the medical care in the United States that he needed. It is a perfect example of what separates us from our enemies."

The American Legion sat down with all three winners for a question-and-answer session. Click here to read a full transcript of it.