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GETTYSBURG, PA. — The autograph hounds waiting expectantly in a hotel lobby weren’t drawn by actors, musicians or politicians, but by a few dozen men whose rare and distinguished achievements have earned them the nation’s highest military honor.
Nearly half of the 79 living recipients of Medal of Honor are attending the gathering in Gettysburg, where some of its first recipients fought 150 years ago.
The Medal of Honor Society annual convention gives the public an opportunity to collect the signatures of the men who have been honored by Congress for risking their lives beyond the call of duty in combat, and dozens of people waited Thursday for them to return from a luncheon at a nearby farm once owned by President Dwight Eisenhower.
Dave Loether, 62, a computer analyst from Pittsburgh, was hoping to add to the 55 signatures of Medal of Honor recipients he has collected on a U.S. Army flag. Loether knows many of their faces by sight — and their stories by heart.
“It’s a piece of cloth with some ink on it — it’s worthless,” Loether said. “On the other hand, it’s priceless.”
The recipients’ autographs sometimes end up on public auction sites, but Loether said he collects them as a hobby that began as a way to honor his sons in the military.
Recipients sat at tables ringing a hotel ballroom, including Clinton L. Romesha of Minot, N.D. President Barack Obama presented him with the honor in February for bravery in defending an Army outpost in Afghanistan four years ago.
Now working in safety for a construction company, Romesha, 32, said he tries to remind himself that he’s still the same person he was before, a man who has to take out the trash himself.
“I never thought in a million years I’d ever meet a recipient, let alone be one,” said Romesha, who was attending his first convention.
Eight soldiers died in the daylong barrage by the Taliban in the mountains near Pakistan, and Romesha was one of 22 wounded among the badly outnumbered Americans. He helped lead others to safety and retrieve the bodies of the U.S. dead.
Donald E. Ballard, the society’s treasurer, became a member for his bravery while serving as a Navy corpsman in Vietnam. He threw himself on a grenade while directing Marines to carry a wounded comrade to safety. The grenade did not detonate.
Ballard, who now owns a funeral home in Grain Valley, Mo., said being a Medal of Honor recipient means being a role model, like it or not.
“There is no Hero 101 book, I didn’t take the course,” Ballard said. “I have to live up their expectations, or my expectations of what they expect.”
Ballard said a major focus of the organization these days is its character development program for middle and high school students promoting values like courage and sacrifice. Recipients were scheduled to meet Friday with local students.
Other scheduled events included a town hall forum at Gettysburg College and a concert on the Gettysburg battlefield with the United States Marine Band on Friday and an award dinner on Saturday. Next year’s convention will be in Knoxville, Tenn.