- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 8, 2002

America gained a new generation of heroes on September 11, thanks to the hundreds of firefighters, police officers, rescue workers and ordinary citizens who risked and lost their lives to save others at the Pentagon, the World Trade Center and on United Flight 93 in Pennsylvania. What most people don't realize, however, is that the roll call of the nation's greatest heroes is smaller than it has ever been, and getting smaller every year.
Since its inception by an act of Congress in 1861, 3,455 Congressional Medals of Honor the nation's highest military decoration have been awarded to 3,436 men and one woman. Nineteen of the honorees received two Medals of Honor each. Fewer than 150 of the total Medal of Honor recipients are alive today. The average living medal winner is more than 68 years old. Two-thirds of the honorees from World War II are 80 years old or older. Nearly half of the Vietnam War medal winners are over 60. Never in the history of the medal has America had as few honorees alive as we do right now.
And make no mistake about it, Medal of Honor winners are a very special breed of hero. The medal is given for one or more conspicuous acts of bravery that are so far "above and beyond the call of duty" that no lesser recognition in America's pyramid of honor (as the hierarchy of military awards is termed) is sufficient. A reading of the citations for Medals of Honor winners is easily one of the most stirring things any American can do. (Every Medal of Honor citation the official account of the act of heroism for which the medal is awarded is available on the Congressional Medal of Honor Society web site, https://www.cmohs.org.)
This includes heroes like Pvt. First Class Jack H. Lucas who, as a 17-year-old Marine from Plymouth, N.C., was on patrol with three other Marines on Feb. 20, 1945, the day after the landing on Iwo Jima in World War II. Pvt. Lucas' patrol was moving through a narrow ravine on the volcanic island when the Japanese ambushed them. While under heavy enemy fire, two grenades were thrown at Pvt. Lucas' patrol. Pvt. Lucas immediately threw himself on one of the grenades and pulled the second grenade underneath his body to protect his fellow Marines.
It also includes Marine Pvt. Hector A. Cafferata Jr., of New York, N.Y., in the Korean War. On Nov. 20, 1950, while serving as a rifleman, Pvt. Cafferata had his entire fire team wounded and put out of action, opening a gap in the defensive line the Marines were holding. Pvt. Cafferata single-handedly fought off a regimental-strength enemy attack and held his team's section of the line. When the enemy regrouped and attacked a second time, Pvt. Cafferata continued holding the line, killing at least 15 enemy soldiers and wounding many more in both the first and second attacks. When a grenade was thrown at his wounded comrades, Pvt. Cafferata picked it up and threw it back at the enemy, losing a finger in the process. It was only after being wounded a second time by a sniper's bullet that Pvt. Cafferata would allow himself to be evacuated for medial treatment.
No less amazing is the story of Maj. Patrick Henry Brady, U.S. Army, from Kansas City, Mo., who, on Jan. 6, 1968, was an ambulance helicopter pilot flying near Chu Lai in Vietnam. Maj. Brady flew his helicopter several times into enemy territory and into a minefield under heavy enemy gunfire to rescue wounded soldiers. All told, on that single day, Maj. Brady had three helicopters destroyed underneath him, and still managed to rescue 51 injured soldiers.
But the most amazing thing about these citations is that they are so very average; every medal winner's story is as breathtaking as those of Pvt. Lucas, Pvt. Cafferata and Maj. Brady.
It isn't possible to read the accounts of the patriots who have earned the nation's highest honor and not realize that they are a precious resource that should be appreciated while they are still among us. Their courage and sacrifice are the brightest colors in the tapestry of America's heritage. And yet few, if any, medal winners are even mentioned in our kids' history textbooks, let alone given the deference and respect they deserve.
There are Medal of Honor memorials in Riverside, Calif., Indianapolis, Ind. and Pueblo, Colo. A Medal of Honor museum has also been created on the hangar deck of the aircraft carrier Yorktown at Patriot's Point, S.C. We need to take our children to see them. The nonprofit Congressional Medal of Honor Society has several outreach and public education programs. We need to take advantage of them.
In short, more of us need to recognize the men who gave of themselves "above and beyond" before more of them, sadly, are consigned to the history they made.

Eric Christensen is a writer living in Ashburn, Va.

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