Around their necks hangs a medal that honors the utmost bravery in the most dangerous and dire of circumstances in the military. Being awarded that medal puts them in a unique and small group.
But that’s not how Medal of Honor recipients see it. The group of them that American Legion National Commander James E. Koutz spoke to Monday night during the Legion’s Salute to Heroes Inaugural Ball in the nation’s capital don’t see it as a personal award. It’s much bigger than that.
“The ones that I went around and talked to – they are wearing (the medal) for their buddies,” Koutz said. “They deserved it, but they wear it for their buddies, other soldiers and even our troops serving today.”
Twenty five Medal of Honor recipients were the featured guests at the Legion’s Inaugural Ball – a tradition for the organization since 1953. Those recipients – among 800 attendees of the ball – were joined by newly sworn in Vice President Joe Biden, longtime NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, wounded warriors and their families from nearby Fort Myer, and House and Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairmen Rep. Jeff Miller and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
But the guests of honor were the Medal of Honor recipients – though none view themselves as stars. Jack Jacobs, who earned his medal while serving in Vietnam, believes many more servicemembers performed as heroically as he did.
“We represent all the soldiers and sailors, airmen and Marines who performed valiantly,” Jacobs said. “No one saw what they did, or they were killed, or the paperwork got lost. But they also sacrificed so much for our freedoms today.”
Harold Fritz, another Medal of Honor recipient from Vietnam, said while he and his fellow recipients are small in numbers, they represent a much larger brotherhood.
“It’s the same thing we have with fellow veterans,” he said. “You don’t have to be a Medal of Honor recipient to have that camaraderie. That we served together, we fought together, we lived together and we go on together – that’s really the key to us.”
And with that camaraderie comes a responsibility, said Leroy Petry – a recipient of the Medal of Honor for his actions in Afghanistan.”We know, as Medal of Honor recipients, that we are entrusted with representing the military – active duty, those who never came home, those overseas right now and those who have served,” he said.
Biden also spoke of an obligation – one also to those who have served. “When your service ends, as citizens our obligation begins,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of obligations as a nation, but we have only one truly sacred obligation: To equip those we send to war, and care for them and their families when they come home.”
The vice president, whose son served in Iraq in the Army National Guard, praised all of the veterans at the ball. “You have met every challenge this country has faced,” he said. “You’ve done it in every generation with such extraordinary bravery and skill. Our veterans are unique in the world in that every single generation has risen to the occasion – from World War II to Korea, Vietnam, the (Persian) Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan and lots of places I didn’t even mention. In each and every circumstance, the next generation that comes along astounds the one that went before it.
“You fought decades apart, but there’s one incredible connection. It’s like a blood vessel that runs through you from generation to generation: Your devotion to your country and the full measure that you give that devotion. It’s a commitment that defines everyone in this room and every man and woman who have put on a uniform to serve this nation.”
Brokaw, who wrote “The Greatest Generation” about those who fought in World War II, told a story about Sen. Daniel Inouye, a Medal of Honor recipient who passed away in December. Injured in World War II, Inouye shared a VA hospital room with future Sens. Bob Dole and Phil Hart. When Inouye’s casket lay in state in Washington, Dole – a Republican – got out of his wheelchair to salute the casket.
“He didn’t want Danny Inouye to ever see him in a wheelchair,” Brokaw said. “To me, as a journalist, as an amateur historian and as a citizen, that was the emblematic picture of our times: A Republican saluting a Democrat, having shared combat experience, having shared a life in public service, and trying to do one thing, which is to advance the interests of this country.”
Brokaw, who was elected American Legion Boys State governor in South Dakota when he was 17, also took time to praise the ball’s host.
“I’m of a generation in which we would say to one another, ‘It takes The American Legion to raise a child,’” he said. “When I was growing up... when you wanted to get something done, you turned to the Legion. They sponsored my Boy Scout troop, I played American Legion Baseball, and I was elected Boys State governor in South Dakota in 1957.”
Both Miller and Sanders pledged to do their best for America’s veterans. Sanders made it a point to emphasize that partisanship in Washington shouldn’t impact veterans.
“All of you are aware that this is a difficult time in Washington,” he said. “There is a lot of partisan divide. But I hope very much – and I, in fact, believe – that despite the deficit... there is nobody in the U.S. Congress who is not going to stand up for our veterans, and there’s nobody who’s going to say that we have to balance the budget on the backs of those who have given so much for our country.
“The debt that we owe all of you is a debt that cannot be described in words. I think the best that we can do is that for all of those who have put their lives on the line defending our country, for those whose families have mourned the loss of their loved ones … what we as a government must do is to make sure that we will provide all of the benefits to all of the families and servicemen who have served our country.”
The night made an impact on Medal of Honor recipient Gordon Roberts, who earned his medal for his actions in Vietnam. “You really can’t put it into words,” he said. “For The American Legion to do this for us is very humbling. We, as a group, are very humbled to be in the Legion’s presence.”