Medal of Honor recipients (from left) Thomas Kelley, Jay Vargas and Brian Thacker place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown, Arlington National Cemetery. (Photo by Craig Roberts)

Medal of Honor recipients laud citizen heroes

On Medal of Honor Day, March 25, 21 Medal of Honor recipients helped bestow honors upon four valorous civilians in Washington. The group from among America’s greatest military heroes nearly duplicated The American Legion’s recent "Salute to Heroes" guest roster.

Ceremonies began in early afternoon as a wintry mix fell upon observants and observers – many of the latter being schoolchildren – at Arlington National Cemetery. Three Medal of Honor recipients, in the company of the Army Old Guard and flanked by their fellow honorees, laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown. The party then adjourned to the warmth of the nearby Women in Military Service for America Memorial for a Citizen Service Before Self Honors (CSBSH) presentation.

The annual CSBSH program, now in its sixth year, is conducted by the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation to recognize the selfless and courageous efforts of hometown heroes. From hundreds of nominations this year, a Foundation committee selected a group of 23 finalists. Of those, four were chosen to receive medals and certificates of recognition at the Arlington ceremony.

The eldest onstage honoree was Father Joe Carroll. The retired Roman Catholic priest, who will turn 72 in April, was recognized for his 30 years of service to San Diego’s less fortunate. The parish priest founded Father Joe’s Villages, a non-profit organization, now modeled throughout the country, that maintains support centers for poor and homeless citizens.

The youngest CSBSH honoree was 15-year-old Marcos Ugarte of Troutdale, Ore. At the age of 14, he rescued an 8-year-old boy from a neighbor’s burning home by climbing a ladder and coaxing the youngster to safety.

The Braithwaite, La., father-and-son team of Jesse Shaffer III and Jesse Shaffer IV received their medals for rescuing 120 flood-stranded neighbors during Hurricane Isaac last year. The Shaffers used their personal watercraft in the effort after other rescuers’ ground vehicles were repelled by the rising waters.

Medal of Honor recipient Tom Kelley is familiar with waterborne rescues. Kelley is famous for directing a harrowing riverbank extraction of soldiers during the Vietnam War. He helped select this year’s CSBSH honorees. "We embraced (this program) because there are people out there not wearing the uniform – ordinary folks – doing extraordinary things," Kelley said. "I think for our Society, which has a lot of prestige, to recognize these people really adds to the luster of the award that they’re getting."

This year’s Medal of Honor Day coincided with the 150th anniversary of the first Medal of Honor presentation in 1863. It went to Union Army Pvt. Jacob Parrott who was recognized – along with five comrades – for sabotage efforts against Confederate troops in an action that became known as the "Great Locomotive Chase" or "Andrews’ Raid."

Present day Medal of Honor recipients are feted by The American Legion every four years during the organization’s "Salute to Heroes" Presidential Inaugural Ball and Banquet.