The Joe Ronnie Hooper Award was given to Medal of Honor winner Brian Thacker. Thacker was a lieutenant in Vietnam in 1971 when North Vietnamese soldiers overran his hilltop six-man artillery observation post. Thacker and his men retreated from bunker to bunker, fighting against overwhelming odds. Two helicopters were shot down trying to rescue them, and three of his men were killed. During a lull in the fighting, he sent his men out along a ridge line to get to another extraction point six miles away while he stayed behind and called in artillery strikes on his own position to protect their retreat. He found cover in a nearby bamboo forest, and stayed hidden for eight days without food or water while the North Vietnamese looked for him.
The Raymond G. Davis Award is named after another Medal of Honor winner and one of the Marine Corps’ greatest heroes. Davis’ leadership is credited with saving more than 7,000 Marines during the savage fighting at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. His award was given to the survivors of the 2nd Ranger Infantry Company (Airborne), the first, last, and only all-black Ranger unit in American history. They served for 10 months in Korea, amassing an unbelievable combat record. They were, for example, the first Army Rangers to parachute behind enemy lines. As one of their members said at the dinner, in a very strange turn of events, the segregation that was ending in the Army had actually made them better soldiers. Their officers and NCOs trained them to be twice as good as anyone else so no one could question their qualifications.
Finally, the last award of the evening was the Lt. Michael P. Murphy Award, named after the first winner of the Medal of Honor in Afghanistan. A Navy SEAL, Murphy and his men were ambushed by Taliban fighters. He was killed after he exposed himself to enemy fire to gain a better position from which to transmit a call for help. Murphy’s father spoke about his son, and there were few dry eyes in the room after he finished talking.
The Michael Murphy Award was given to Staff Sergeant Leroy Petry, who received the Medal of Honor from President Obama on July 12, 2011. When a grenade landed amidst his men during a battle in the Paktia province, he saved them all by picking it up and throwing it away. He lost his hand in the process. He tourniquetted his own arm and stayed in the battle until he could lead his men to a casualty collection point. At that point, he realized that he had also been shot through both legs.
Petry came over to the table behind me where the two Pointe du Hoc Rangers were sitting. He introduced himself and saluted the men who had preceded him in the storied ranks of one of the most elite units of the U.S. Army. I felt I was witnessing a historical handoff from the Greatest Generation to the newest line of brave, honorable, and patriotic Americans who have stepped into their shoes to protect our nation and our freedom.
It was an honor to be at that evening’s event, and I will remember it for the rest of my life. Another special day fast approaches: Veterans Day, formerly known as Armistice Day. As Woodrow Wilson said when he first proclaimed November 11 as Armistice Day, it is a day that should be “filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those” who have served our country. They deserve both our gratitude and our admiration.