Nation's heroes gather to remember fallen comrades
HONOLULU — Fifty-two of America’s Medal of Honor recipients gathered at the National Cemetery of the Pacific to memorialize their fallen comrades Wednesday in what organizers believed was the largest assembly of men who have earned the highest U.S. military honor.
The Medal of Honor recipients — along with other veterans and spectators — dedicated a stone memorial to 30 missing-in-action honorees and 32 recipients interred at the ancient Hawaiian burial site known as the Punchbowl.
“Our country needs heroes,” said retired Navy Capt. Jerry Coffee, a former Vietnam prisoner of war and Silver Star recipient who was the keynote speaker. “You guys continue to fill big shoes, and that says something great about our nation.”
The ceremony was the first public event of the Medal of Honor Convention, an annual gathering that draws recipients from as far back as Word War II and as recent as the war in Afghanistan.
“It’s a wonderful ceremony,” said Allen Lynch, a former specialist 4th class who was awarded the medal for rescuing three comrades under fire in Vietnam. “What can you say? You’re at the Punchbowl among men and women who died for their country. It doesn’t get any better than this for remembering our freedoms.”
Surrounded by hills dotted with fresh tropical flowers and 34,000 gravestones, the mood of the hundreds who attended often reflected the site’s somber surroundings. Several organizations laid wreaths. The Air Forces Firing Detail pierced the air with a three-volley rifle salute, which followed a Marine Forces Pacific Band rendition of echo taps.
Between the moments of reflection, speakers paid tribute to the medal’s living recipients and thanked them for continuing to tell their stories to schools and community groups.
As the ceremony ended, many of the recipients exchanged greetings with well-wishers, or talked among themselves about their families and the small details of their lives, as old friends often do.
One of the newer members of the Medal of Honor’s rolls seemed awestruck to be included.
“It’s incredibly humbling to be standing here among all of these men,” said Sal Giunta, who earned his medal in Afghanistan after being hit by heavy enemy fire while rescuing his squad leader.
Giunta added that he hoped the recognition he receives serves to validate the efforts of the soldiers with whom he served, and those who continue to serve.
Several active-duty servicemembers and veterans were in attendance Wednesday, including Mathias Ferreira and Josh Wege, both medically retired former Marines who lost their legs while serving in Afghanistan.
Wege, of Campbellsport, Wis., doesn’t consider himself a hero – just a guy who got hurt. Judging by the long ovation for wounded warriors at the ceremony, his highly decorated comrades give him a lot more credit than that.
“It always gets to me how the [Medal of Honor recipients] are the first guys to come up to you to say thanks,” Wege said.
Ferreira, of Atlanta, said the medal recipients he had met remained impressive not only for their deeds in war, but in how they have carried themselves afterward.
“I can’t imagine what these guys went through,” Ferreira said. “They get a lot of credit and they deserve every bit of it. These guys are the true definition of heroes. But when you’re with these guys, you also see that they’re still normal people.”
Medal of Honor recipients are the rock stars in Hawaii
Published Oct. 8, 2012
HONOLULU — The men decked out in matching polo shirts and tropical flower leis looked a lot like the scores of other visitors whose organizations hold conventions amid the sun and sand of Hawaii.
Most of the men are in their sixties, or older. They remained largely anonymous and unassuming, until the moment that these Clark Kents wrapped the nation’s highest military honors around their necks and walked up a rock ‘n roll stage saturated with multi-colored lights and surrounded by concert speakers.
Hundreds of onlookers — most of whom weren’t alive during WWII or the Korean War, some of whom were children during Vietnam — swarmed below them in a cacophony of cheers and flashing smartphone cameras.
The largest group of Medal of Honor recipients ever thought to be in the same place wrapped up their weeklong convention with two public events — a block party featuring Gary Sinise’s Lt. Dan Band on Friday, and a sold-out book signing on Saturday.
“The outpouring of appreciation for what we have done is fantastic,” said Medal of Honor recipient James Taylor, who earned his award following a daring rescue in Vietnam. “I’ve had people walk up and just say thank you, thank you.”
Medal recipients and their families attended social events earlier in the week, including a luau, a governor’s reception and tours of Pearl Harbor. They also paid tribute to fallen medal recipients at the Cemetery of the Pacific, and dined aboard the USS Missouri.
To many of the recipients, the most fulfilling moments were spent inside Oahu classrooms, where they spoke to students promoting values like service, patriotism and commitment. They told stories about servicemembers who undertook dangerous missions with little chance of success, just so their comrades might make it back home.
“It’s giving them another type of hero to look at, besides basketball players,” said Don ‘Doc’ Ballard, a former Navy corpsmen and Army officer, who threw himself on an ultimately defective grenade while treating wounded Marines in Vietnam.
Ballard and several other recipients saved some of their highest praise for today’s servicemembers.
“The kids going into war today know they’re going into combat for (multiple deployments),” Ballard added. “I did one tour in Vietnam. They’ve got more stamina than we had.”
Tech Sgt. Steve Dracup, an Afghanistan veteran, said he volunteered to provide security at the book signing, just for the opportunity to do something for the recipients.
He described them as superheroes in one moment, but also gained some added perspective after shaking a few hands and collecting several autographs.
“It’s weird, because what they’ve done is extraordinary,” said Dracup, of Philadelphia. “But when I meet them, they seem just like me.”