Tomorrow, July 12, the Medal of Honor will be 145 years old. Originally named the U.S. Army Medal of Honor, it was inspired by the Navy Medal of Valor (which had been approved the year before), and is awarded to those who, “…distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldier-like qualities…” (History.com). Less than 3500 awards have been presented in our history.
We throw the word “awe” around liberally, but it is a powerful word, and one of the few that sufficiently describes how we look at those who wear the Medal of Honor. Bravery, heroism, selflessness – they’re all good terms, but they aren’t enough to provide a full appreciation for what these people did. What they did is awe-inspiring. They weren’t simply brave, they were a level above brave. They weren’t merely selfless, they were self-sacrificing. And they aren’t just heroes, they are icons – the ultimate, flesh-and-blood symbols of what anyone in uniform aspires to be.
While I was a Midshipman at the University of New Mexico, our Marine instructor was an impressive young Major named Jay Vargas. He was athletic, funny, easy going, and we idolized him.
He wore the Medal of Honor (see his citation).
He was awarded the medal after being wounded three times in a three day battle at a village called Dai Do, fighting through the pain to take his objective, lead his troops, and save countless American lives. The citation describes how he organized his men into a defensive perimeter despite being injured by a grenade minutes before. How, after being hit a third time, he “crossed the fire-swept area” and dragged his wounded Batallion Commander to safety. His medal is inscribed with his mother’s name, M. Sando Vargas, who died shortly before President Nixon could present the award to her son.
If you try to read all the Medal of Honor citations, you will be overwhelmed by the intensity of it all. And I think that’s appropriate. Those of us who don’t wear the stars on blue can’t really fathom the intense level of bravery described in those documents. Only those who found it within themselves to climb to the pinnacle of courage can appreciate what it took – what it takes – to be awarded the ultimate military honor.
That’s why Medal of Honor recipients are saluted by everyone, regardless of rank. And although it seems almost trite to say it, those who wear the Medal of Honor – living and dead – are our heroes…not just this week, but forever.
I can’t say how many license plates that I’ve seen, which identified the vehicle owner as an active duty servicemember, retired veteran or Purple Heart recipient.
I can, however, count the number of license plates that I’ve seen, which identified the car owner as a Medal of Honor recipient. In fact I can narrow that count from one hand to just one finger.
Back in 1998, while bicycling around NAS Jacksonville, I saw a Cadillac with a MoH plate. I caught up with the vehicle and thanks to a red light, I was able to ask the driver if he was a Medal of Honor recipient. The driver modestly replied that he was a MoH recipient. I immediately rendered a hand salute and the gentleman introduced himself as Elliot Williams.
I understand that an enlisted MoH does not officially rate a salute, but unofficially, even flag officers have been known to initiate the exchange of the hand salutes between themselves and enlisted MoH recipients.
Sometimes that salute from an officer to an enlisted MoH recipient is followed by an investigation to insure that the medal, rosette or ribbon bar is not being worn fraudulently.
Throughout my life, before, during and after the years that I’ve enjoyed the honor of serving in the world’s greatest Navy, I’ve had the privelege of meeting plenty of heroes, but only once, had the honor of meeting a living icon.
I’ve read that during the Vietnam Conflict, Elliot Williams had the distinction of recieving more decorations than any other enlisted man.
Sadly, BMC James Elliot Williams passed away the following year.