Superman's Medal

“Come in, come in, buddy,” said the broad-shouldered, barrel-chested man with thinning white hair and a big happy-to-see-me smile, as I stepped inside his room at the Mills House Hotel in Charleston, S.C., last week. “You’re getting ready to play the part of the president of the United States.”

The man – a retired U.S. Army Sergeant Major (whose name I won’t mention for obvious reasons) was a recipient of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for combat valor – had asked that I come to his room an hour before the national Medal of Honor convention’s Patriot’s Dinner, and tie his bowtie and fasten his Medal of Honor around his neck.

Forty-three years earIier, this same man was a lean, mean, 22-year-old infantryman who had led a fierce attack against a complex of enemy bunkers – under extremely heavy fire – wiping out three enemy emplacements, personally destroying one, and saving the lives three wounded comrades in the process. 

But on this day he was alone in his room with the TV on, watching the Golf Channel, and waiting for me to take care of his tie and Medal, because his arthritic hands made it difficult to do either himself. We briefly discussed golf, then Saturday’s football scores. I tied his tie, then carefully lifted the Medal from a clean towel which he had placed it on to iron the lofty decoration’s pale blue ribbon.

As I stood behind the man and fastened the ribbon around his thick neck, he again reminded me that with the exception of his family and Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson, I was perhaps the only person in the world to place the decoration around his neck. It was the second time for me though (the first being when I fastened the Medal around Navy SEAL Mike Thornton’s neck prior to an event in 2008).

Perhaps it sounds groupie-like that a 51-year-old field-grade officer like me would be emotionally stirred by such an opportunity to serve such a man. 

But the Medal of Honor is no ordinary decoration, nor are the men who wear it; though they would tell you they are ordinary.

Which is why all of South Carolina turned out last week to honor 51 of the 87 living recipients of the Medal of Honor (soon to be 88 when Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta receives his Medal in a few weeks for his heroic actions in Afghanistan) at the annual Medal of Honor convention, which began with a one-day event in Columbia followed by five days packed with events in Charleston.    

And turn out they did: Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen, active, Reserve, retired and former were there to honor these men and the nearly 3,400 who had already passed. But there also were throngs of convention volunteers and supporters, recipient family members, friends, media – everyone from CBS’s 60 Minutes to the Defense Department’s Pentagon Channel, Reuters, AP, local press, foreign press, you name it – and enough law enforcement to shut down an army of bad guys.  

By weeks end, the recipients had been personally saluted by everyone including journalists Peggy Noonan and Rita Cosby, actors Stephen Lang and Gary Sinise, at least two S.C. governors, the Air Force chief of staff, the Parris Island Marine Band, and four S.C. Air National Guard pilots flying their F-16s low over The Citadel’s parade deck where 20 attending recipients (seated in folding chairs between the field and the spectators in bleachers) received a pass-in-review salute from The Citadel’s entire corps of cadets – basically 2,000 splendidly uniformed young Americans with rifles parading past aging recipients while drums rolled, bagpipes skirled, swords flashed, flags fluttered, cannons boomed, and spectators applauded and wept.

Why all the hoopla over a handful of white-haired war heroes?

Two reasons. 

First, as I’ve often said – and as retired Marine Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston, a Medal of Honor recipient, so eloquently articulated in a post-convention op-ed piece – “Military tradition is the lifeblood of military prowess, and military prowess is what wins battles. Therefore, the establishment of a greater national awareness and an appreciation of our military tradition – through stellar events like our 2010 convention – are absolutely essential to the continued strength of this nation.”

Second, these are not simply white-haired war heroes. They are men who have transcended heroism. But don’t take my word for it: Read the Medal of Honor citations for any one of them, and you’ll walk away convinced that only Superman himself could have done what they did. 

But then they are supermen, and that’s why I will forever cherish having tied Superman’s tie and having fastened the Medal around his neck.