W. Thomas Smith, Jr

“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) and 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 earlier, 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.

W. Thomas Smith, Jr

W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a former U.S. Marine rifle-squad leader and counterterrorism instructor. He is the author of six books, and he has covered war and conflict in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq, and Lebanon. Visit him online at http://www.uswriter.com.
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