America’s Ignorance of Her Heroes

W. Thomas Smith, Jr
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Posted: Mar 23, 2009 12:00 AM

During a recent commercial flight from Jacksonville (Fla.) to Baltimore, a flight attendant offered free drink coupons to any of the 150 passengers who could name just one of the five Medal of Honor recipients from the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Awkward moments of silence followed until one man, Navy veteran Dale Shelton of Annapolis, Maryland, spoke up and named Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith.

Shelton was correct: Smith received the award posthumously in 2005 for his actions during the April 2003 battle for Baghdad airport.

No other passenger was able to name a recipient.

The flight attendant then asked the passengers to name an American Idol winner. “The cabin lit up like a pinball machine as 43 passengers scrambled to push their attendant call button,” according to a piece by the American Forces Press Service. “Passengers named various Idol winners.”

The flight attendant then announced there would not be any free drink coupons for that answer, adding that naming an American Idol winner was not worth a drink.

Good for the flight attendant. Shame on the passengers and what their ignorance says about our greater society

For the record, the other four Medal of Honor recipients – all of whom, like Smith, received the award posthumously for post-9/11 actions – are Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham (for actions in April 2004), Navy SEAL Lt. Michael Murphy (June 2005), Navy SEAL Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Monsoor (Sept. 2006), and Army Spc. Ross McGinnis (Dec. 2006).

Which brings us to our recognition this week of National Medal of Honor Day, the significance of the award, and the necessity of honoring the heroes who wear it.

In 2007, Congress designated Mar. 25 (of each year) as National Medal of Honor Day: The date coinciding with the same date in 1863 when Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton presented six Union Army soldiers with the first-ever Medals of Honor.

More than 3,400 Medals of Honor have since been awarded up through the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Standards for receiving the award have stiffened to the point that most nominees today are killed in the action for which they are deemed worthy of the Medal. And every recipient of the Medal since the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993 has earned the decoration posthumously.

The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest military award for battlefield heroism. To receive it (no one wins it) the recipient’s gallantry in combat must be such that it is considered beyond that warranting a lesser-ranking – though also astronomically esteemed – decoration for valor like the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross, or the Air Force Cross.

Today there are only 98 living recipients of the Medal of Honor (out of a nation of 306-million people). The oldest living recipient is nearly 100. The youngest is 58. And since Mar. 25, 2007 – the first designated “National Medal of Honor Day” – 13 recipients have died.

Each year, the Medal of Honor Society holds a national convention for its living recipients and supporters (It will be held in Charleston, S.C. – my homestate and the Society’s hometown – in 2010.). But according to Society bylaws, when the number of living recipients drops to 25, the Society will disband.

So we’re losing these great men – and rapidly – and we will soon lose the Society. “So what?” the American Idol fans on the aforementioned commercial flight might wonder.

My response would be – and as I’ve often said – far too many of us assume America wins all of its wars because we have resources and technological superiority: and those things count to be sure. But it is our military prowess that wins battles. Military tradition is the lifeblood of that prowess and our living recipients of the Medal of Honor are the greatest living pillars of that tradition which in turn fuels the prowess.

We need our recipients. We need to recognize them and expand our national awareness of who they are and what the Medal itself represents. For as Pres. Abraham Lincoln said, “Any nation that does not honor its heroes, will not long endure.”