Fifty-four of the 81 living Congressional Medal of Honor recipients are gathering this week in Honolulu — including Allan Kellogg of Honolulu. The band of heroes have a number of public events scheduled, and will be visiting schools to talk with students about service and sacrifice for others.
On its surface, the Medal of Honor isn’t terribly impressive. Lacking the spectacular design elements of an Olympic medal or other sparkling designations, the impact of our nation’s highest honor comes not from its design, but from what it represents. Neither large nor made of precious materials, the Medal of Honor is as understated and rare as those who wear it. Like the recipients themselves, the award is a humble and breathtaking sight to behold.
Since the nation’s founding, 40 million men and women have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, but only 3,500 performed in a manner so outstanding, and with so little regard for their own safety, that they earned the right to be Medal of Honor recipients. Some, like Audie Murphy, Alvin York and Eddie Rickenbacker, became household names. The majority just went home, retiring to quiet lives as fathers, mothers, farmers and janitors like Bill Crawford.
After leaving the Army in World War II, Crawford found employment cleaning the stairwells and hallways at the U.S. Air Force Academy, for many years completely unknown to future leaders who passed him on a daily basis.
Or William Carney, the first African-American recipient in 1863, who gave up an intended career as a minister, believing he could serve God better by serving his country.
And Desmond Doss, a medic and a conscientious objector who swore to never take a life or even carry a gun, who saved more than 75 wounded soldiers at the Battle of Okinawa while surrounded by the advancing Japanese army.
Then there are those who didn’t come home. These represent the majority of Medal of Honor recipients – men like Humbert “Rocky” Versace. Versace fell in love with the impoverished Vietnamese children and worked tirelessly on their behalf. Taken prisoner just three weeks before he was to be sent home, Versace was dragged, half-starved, through Vietnamese villages as an example of American weakness. Fluent in the language of his captors, he smiled and spoke kind words to the villagers he passed, to the dismay of his captors. He tried to escape four times, 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 minster 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.
Next week, 54 of the living 81 recipients will be in Honolulu for the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s annual convention. Hawaii is being represented by U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye and Allan Kellogg Jr.
Inouye’s feats of bravery are well known; Kellogg’s, hardly at all.
Kellogg, then a gunnery sergeant serving in Vietnam, was leading his unit to recover a fallen comrade when he was struck by a grenade. Kellogg shoved the yet-to-explode explosive deep into the mud he was standing on and covered it with his body to save his fellow Marines. The explosion injured his chest and shoulder, but Kellogg remained to direct his men to safety. Today, he lives in Kailua and works with veterans.
The conference serves to build camaraderie among recipients, uphold the dignity of the award and promote citizenship among the children they visit. During the course of about a week, attendees will visit schools across the island to share their message of service over self.
According to Col. (Ret.) Jack Jacobs, who received his Medal of Honor for valor in Vietnam, the school visits are always a highlight of the convention.
“It’s really important to pass on the notions of service, sacrifice and patriotism,” he says. “We get to go out to schools, and we all love doing that because we know how important it is to get in front of the kids and remind them of how important service and sacrifice is. We get the chance to meet lots and lots of great kids.”
“Others” is a popular theme among Medal of Honor recipients. No one could blame them for accepting a share of the spotlight – after all, they’ve earned it. But that’s not what these men are about. They are more impressed with the accomplishment of others than their own serv ice.
“If you ask a Medal of Honor recipient, he’ll talk about other recipients because he is awestruck by what they did and the contribution they made in battle and for the country,” says Jacobs. “I think the award itself is very important to the country and not to any individual – certainly not to any individual recipient.”
Adm. (Ret.) Thomas Fargo is co-chairman of the conference, and over his 35-year career he has read perhaps thousands of citations for all manner of bravery. He says it’s difficult to articulate what it takes to receive the medal.
“What you realize is how rigorous the standards are. I read a Navy Cross citation the other day that I thought was just unbelievable in terms of what the individual had done, but for whatever reason didn’t rise to the level of the Medal of Honor. You look at now, after 10 years of war, there are only three living Medal of Honor recipients coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan. That itself tells you how very, very special and demanding the criteria is.”
So what is it like to be a Medal of Honor recipient? Those who know say it’s a life-changing event. Perhaps even more so than the moment for which they were honored.
“You realize that you are not just you anymore; you’re a Medal of Honor recipient, and because you are, you represent all those people who served the country and gave us the freedom we have today,” says Jacobs, who teaches politics at West Point. “We represent all of them. It’s a heavy responsibility, but it’s a pleasant responsibility. It’s good to feel you can make a difference not just on the battlefield, but in the country going forward, particularly with kids.”
Are these men heroes? You’re darn right they are. President Harry S. Truman said the Medal of Honor is a greater honor than even the presidency. But to those who have received our nation’s highest award, the typical answer is quite different.
“No, I don’t think so,” says Jacobs. “I get asked that from time to time, particularly from kids. In my view, I was just doing what I was trained to do, what I thought I was expected to do, and I think what anyone else would have done in the exact situation. If you consider all the people who performed valiantly and nobody saw what they did, or they did see and they themselves were killed, or it was written up and their paperwork was lost either accidentally or on purpose, then you realize that you are representing lots and lots of people who performed just as valiantly or even more so.”
Medal of Honor Public Events
Oct. 3:MEMORIAL STONE DEDICATION CEREMONY
10:30 a.m. National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. The dedication of a memorial stone will honor 32 Medal of Honor recipients interred at Punchbowl. Admission is free. Limited parking will be available at Punchbowl, along with off-site parking and free shuttle service at Lincoln Elementary, Stevenson Middle and Roosevelt High schools starting at 8 a.m. The shuttle will take attendees to and from alternate parking sites.
Oct. 5: DOWNTOWN BLOCK PARTY
6-10 p.m. Actor Gary Sinise and his Lt. Dan Band will perform a free concert on Nimitz Highway between Smith Street and Nuuanu Avenue. Medal of Honor recipients will be the guests of honor. Food and drinks will be available for purchase.
Oct. 6: MEDAL OF HONOR BOOK SIGNING
9-11 a.m., and 11 a.m.-1 p.m. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet more than 50 Medal of Honor recipients at Hale Koa Hotel. Tickets cost $20 each. Only 500 tickets will be sold for each session. Each ticket includes a hardcover Medal of Honor quote book. Tickets need to be purchased ahead of time at medalofhonorconvention2012.com.
Oct. 6: PATRIOT AWARD DINNER
4:30-10 p.m. A reception aboard the USS Missouri, followed by a gala awards dinner. Tickets cost $500 each and are available through Oct. 1. Tables of 10 can be purchased for $5,000. To purchase tickets or a table, go to email@example.com.