Everywhere you looked November 9 to 11 at the Hyatt Regency in Arlington, Va., you saw a hero. Gathering there for the American Veterans Center’s Ninth Annual Conference were distinguished veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. They met and spoke with their fellow veterans from across the generations, a grateful public and hundreds of high school and college students.
The conference proved to be a who’s who of American heroes and featured such legends as veterans of the “Doolittle Raiders” and the “Band of Brothers” from World War II, former prisoners of war from Vietnam, and decorated veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Following the three days of speaker sessions, the event was capped off with the annual awards banquet, honoring the heroes of World War II through today. Presented with the Audie Murphy Award for Outstanding Service in World War II were the legendary “Doolittle Raiders.” Given the Ray Davis Award and Joe Ronnie Hooper Award for Korea and Vietnam respectively were Medal of Honor recipients Hiroshi Miyamura and George “Bud” Day. Also on hand to be honored were the surviving Marines from the platoon that scaled Mt. Suribachi during the battle for Iwo Jima.
Despite the great heroes of the past, it was the heroes of the present who left the most striking impression. Honored with the Paul Ray Smith Award for Outstanding Service in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom were Marine SSgt. Anthony Viggiani and Sgt. Timothy Connors. Until recently, Sgt. 1st Class Smith was the only Medal of Honor recipient from the current struggle against Islamic radicalism. He was killed during the initial invasion of Iraq in a firefight where he was credited with saving the lives of dozens of his comrades.
SSgt. Viggiani, presented the award by Sgt. 1st Class Smith’s widow, Birgit, stood out in a room full of heroes. Currently a drill instructor for the Marine Corps at Parris Island, Viggiani looked the part of the legend that he has quickly become. On June 2, 2004, then-Sgt. Viggiani led a counter-attack against an enemy militia in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, personally taking out several fighters who had wounded his men. Shot through the leg in the process, he merely popped a few aspirin and rejoined his men in pursuit of the enemy. For his actions, he was awarded the Navy Cross.
Leaving a different impression was Timothy Connors, who, despite being one of the great young heroes of Iraq, could have walked through the room largely unnoticed. Now a college student, the 23-year-old Connors might have been mistaken for one of the many students who were in attendance or the grandson of one of the veterans of World War II. In fact, Connors, sitting at a table with the World War II Marines who took Suribachi, might have appeared slightly out of place. However, once his story was read, it quickly became clear that he belonged right alongside these heroes. Connors was the veteran of a dozen house battles during the brutal fight for Fallujah two years ago, the most house fights recorded in American military history. During a particularly vicious fight, Connors was responsible for retrieving the body of a fallen comrade, saving him from falling into enemy hands and is believed to have taken out Omar Hadid, Zarqawi’s top man in Fallujah. He was later awarded the Silver Star.
The evening ended with a tribute to the soldiers of the 101st Airborne who fought in World War II, and those who are continuing their tradition of excellence in Iraq today. Veterans of the famed “Band of Brothers” bestowed medals upon six soldiers of the 101st who recently returned from Iraq. As a crowd gathered around them to take photographs, master of ceremonies Gene Pell remarked, “Folks, this is what it is all about.” Seeing the heroes of yesterday and today together, no more needed to be said.