Medal of Honor Heroes Set the Standard, England Says

By Fred W. Baker III

Medal of Honor recipients are heroes, despite their many humble objections to the label, and are important to the fabric of our society, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England told those gathered to celebrate the official naming of March 25 as National Medal of Honor Day.

Medal of Honor recipients and their families, politicians, senior military members and others packed the historic caucus room in the Russell Senate Office Building to honor those wearing the nation’s highest military award for bravery.

Congress designated March 25 each year as National Medal of Honor Day. The day is significant as the day the first Medal of Honor was presented in 1863.

At the ceremony, England highlighted the importance of the honor and its recipients to the nation and its military.

“Heroes are important. They are important to our military. But they are also important to every citizen and to every person in the world who enjoys and yearns for freedom and liberty,” England said.

“Heroes set standards for the rest of us to aspire to. And by their example they encourage others to excel,” he said.

England also recognized at the ceremony the two most recent recipients of the award, Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham and Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul Smith, both recognized posthumously for bravery in the war in Iraq.

“They are an example of this generation of Americans who volunteer to serve and who serve today in sacrifice for all of us,” England said. “In performing these acts, the recipients have demonstrated resolve, commitment, determination, will and raw courage to prevail. Those qualities are the underpinning of our nation.”

England read a letter from President Bush to the group. In the letter, Bush said the country owes Medal of Honor recipients a debt for their service and, for many, the ultimate sacrifice of their lives.

“Our country is in debt to these great warriors and that debt is one that we can never fully pay,” Bush wrote. “The courage and leadership of the men and women who are honored on this day represent the highest ideals in military service and each of them has set a fine example of what it means to be a fine American.”

Retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. and Medal of Honor recipient Gary L. Littrell took the podium following the evening’s longest ovation for a speaker.

Littrell said that during the past two years he has visited troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said that such visits help him appreciate the freedom we have in America.

“When we get complacent — which I do quite often, and I forget the freedom that we have — all you have to do is visit a third-world country, and how quickly will you appreciate what the young men and women in uniform are doing for the freedoms that we have today,” he said.

Littrell said that during his visits he likes to ask the servicemembers if they know why they are serving and fighting.

“I get a stern look,” he said.

“They look at me and they say, ‘Sergeant Major, I am here because I am fighting this global war on terrorism on their land and in their country to keep them from bringing it back to ours,’” Littrell said.

Littrell said he views National Medal of Honor Day as a call to action for its living recipients to help perpetuate the purpose of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation.

“I do not view 25 March for the years to come as a day to honor ‘we’ the Medal of Honor recipients,” he said. “I view the 25th of March as a day that we the Medal of Honor recipients can give back to our youth.”

Littrell said he plans to spend the day each year speaking to groups such as the Boy or Girl Scouts, or at schools.

“Let’s educate our youth. Let’s give to our kids — the future leaders of this great nation,” Littrell said.

Littrell is the current president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Littrell was a sergeant first class in Vietnam in 1970 when his actions earned him the Medal of Honor.

Since 1863, 3,444 servicemembers have received the nation’s highest military honor for courage under fire.

There are 112 recipients living today.