One of the few advantages of working in Washington is the occasional chance to do something special. Last Saturday night offered just such an opportunity. And, so, my wife and I attended the annual dinner of the American Veterans Center (AVC). The banquet room was filled with veterans who had participated in some of the greatest achievements of the American armed forces. That evening, we were in the middle of history.
AVC’s mission is to preserve and promote the legacy of America’s servicemen and women from every generation. And every great generation of the last 70 years was represented in that room. The AVC gave out its annual awards to deserving veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Iraq/Afghanistan conflict.
It has been almost 70 years since Lt. Colonel James Doolittle led 80 airmen in 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers in a momentous raid on the mainland of Japan. After the disaster at Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt wanted to land an early blow that would teach the Japanese they were not beyond our reach. Doolittle’s mission, flown off the USS Hornet, pushed the outer limits of the technology of the time. It was a success, but it was a one-way trip. The planes didn’t have the range to return to the Hornet and couldn’t land on a carrier. After hitting their target, the pilots continued on into China — to crash land or bail out. All of the aircraft were lost, and 11 crewmen were killed.
Four of the five remaining Doolittle raiders — including Richard Cole, Doolittle’s copilot — were at the dinner. They all looked in remarkably good shape, given that they are in their 90s. They presented the first annual Doolittle Tokyo Raiders Award to General Richard Myers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and himself a Vietnam fighter pilot with over 600 combat hours.
The Audie Murphy Award (Murphy was the most decorated soldier of World War II, winning every medal the Army had to offer including the Congressional Medal of Honor) was given to two Army Rangers. They were representing the 2nd Ranger Battalion, one of the most famous battalions in American history. At Normandy, it was the 2nd Rangers who climbed the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc in the face of murderous machine gun fire from the Nazi defenders. It was humbling to be in the same room with two of these Rangers (sitting right behind us at the next table), who had put their lives on the line 67 years ago in a daring mission to take out the enemy guns covering the beaches where the Allies were landing.
The second Audie Murphy Award was given to Robert Maxwell, who saved his fellow soldiers in 1944 in Southern France by falling on a grenade that had landed in their observation post. He not only survived (although he was terribly wounded), but he won the Medal of Honor. Mr. Maxwell strode up to the stage to receive his award. He did not look like he was 91, or that he had been almost killed by a grenade when he was just a young man.
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.