A soldier of the Old Guard stands sentinel in front of a wreath placed by the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation in front of the Tomb of the Unknowns to recognize the 150th anniversary of the Medal of Honor at Arlington National Cemetery, Va. on March 25. Medal of Honor recipient Hershel “Woody” Williams, right, received the medal for actions on Iwo Jima in 1945 while serving in the Marine Corps. (Mike Morones / Staff)
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Medal of Honor Recipient Joe Jackson, who retired as an Air Force colonel, greets military escorts during a ceremony for the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation's Citizen Service Before Self Honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., March 25. (Mike Morones / Military Times)
When 21 Medal of Honor recipients returned to Arlington National Cemetery for National Medal of Honor day, they represented the freedom they fought for, heroes past and future, as well as those warriors who would never return.
A wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknowns on March 25 marked the 150th anniversary of the medal first given in 1863 to Union Army Pvt. Jacob Parrott, a member of “Andrews' Raiders” who hijacked a Confederate locomotive named “General” before getting caught and imprisoned. He, along with 13 others, escaped the captors, but was among only six to survive the return into Union territory.
The recipients from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq stood saluting their fellow war heroes.
“For these men and women, we mark more than just a mantra, but rather are duty-bound in lifelong obligation that we, in fact, will never forget,” said keynote speaker Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Bryan B. Battaglia, the senior enlisted adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a service following the wreath presentation.
“Gentlemen, you are the embodiment of such traits: courage, integrity, commitment, sacrifice, patriotism, citizenship … you know them well because you live them daily,” Battaglia said.
The recipients were also there to present the Citizen Service Before Self Honor awards, created by the Medal of Honor Society, which recognize nonmilitary members through a singular act of extraordinary heroism. They were first presented six years ago.
“This program recognizes that the cloth of our nation is woven in its communities,” Battaglia said to the four citizen-heroes during the ceremony.
The civilian honorees for this year are: the Rev. Joe Carroll from San Diego, who raised millions of dollars and supplies over 30 years for shelters and programs for the poor and homeless; Marcos Ugart, 15, of Troutdale, Ore., who rescued a 7-year-old boy from his burning home by climbing a ladder, breaking through the window and pulling him to safety; and father and son Jesse Shaffer III and Jesse Shaffer IV from Braithwaite, La., for rescuing 120 people by boat who had been left stranded in flooded streets during Hurricane Isaac in August 2012.
Creating the Citizen Service Before Self Honor was “the best thing we ever did, frankly,” according to Joe Jackson, Medal of Honor recipient and a retired colonel in the Air Force.
“It recognizes people in civilian life who did things in an area of expertise that was probably just as heroic as any military action.”
Jackson, 90, was presented the medal Jan. 16, 1969, for piloting a C-123 Provider to rescue a three-man combat control team trapped under heavy enemy fire at a Special Forces camp in Kham Duc, South Vietnam.
“It changes your life completely,” he said about receiving the MOH. “And just like your wedding day, you'll never forget it.”
Enlisting first with the Army Air Corps during World War II, Jackson went on to serve in the Korean War and then Vietnam. When that war ended, he was stationed at the Pentagon, in charge of positioning war reserve materials throughout the world in case the U.S. went into conflict with the Soviet Union. He was a faculty member of the Air War College in Montgomery, Ala., until he retired from the Air Force in 1974. He then went on to work for Boeing as a training instructor in Iran, teaching Iranian pilots how to make use of tankers and cargo haulers until 1977.
A fellow recipient at the ceremony, Hershel “Woody” Williams, also applauded the Citizen Service Before Self Honors program. He recalled how service, whether military or civilian, changes one's perspective.
“I think I became aware as the result of my service in the Marine Corps that there's very little in this world that we can do alone. Whether we like it or not, we are our brother's keeper,” Williams said.
Williams, 89, was awarded the Medal of Honor on Oct. 5, 1945, as a corporal for a four-hour firefight in Iwo Jima, where he used flamethrowers and demolition charges to subdue the enemy. He retired in 1969 from the Marine Corps Reserve as a chief warrant officer 4. He later served as chaplain of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society for 35 years.
“I don't know if I was more frightened the day I received my Medal of Honor standing before the president of the United States or that day with the Japanese shooting at me,” he said.
“I can vividly remember [President Truman] saying, what he said to all of us that day, ‘I would rather have this medal than be president.' ” Unlike Jackson, who keeps his Medal of Honor in his shirt drawer, Williams' medal is on permanent display in the Pritzker Military Library museum in Chicago. Williams wears a reissued copy of his original medal.
Both Jackson and Williams remarked how the Citizen Service Before Self Honors program and the Congressional Medal of Honor Society will continue to uphold their history.
“This all perpetuates the foundation and the ideals of the foundation when we're all gone. It's for the future, but it also talks about the past,” Jackson said.
“The day that I looked up and saw the flag flying on Mount Suribachi … Marines around me finally started screaming, jumping around me and firing their weapons. We had been on that island five days, had lost hundreds of Marines, but it was something about that [flag] that was needed at that point in time that really lifted the spirit of everybody there,” Williams recalled.
When the Medal of Honor was pinned around Williams' neck, he became a whole different person.
“I decided to protect one thing that mattered to me at the time — American freedom. Now I represent something I never thought I'd represent … now I'm representing those Marines who never got to go home.”