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Medal of Honor recipients return to Boston

  • Published
  • By Meredith March
  • 66th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
On a recent theme park trip with a group of friends, talk of superhero-themed roller coasters evolved into a debate over which of two superheroes was greater. One contingent preferred the hero with super strength who can fly, while another group preferred the superhero who relies on his wits and ingenious gadgets to accomplish daring feats.

Watching a procession of real-life heroes gather before the State House in Boston Sept. 27, however, I realized that the Medal of Honor recipients before me have been more courageous and noteworthy than any comic book creation.

In a time when athletic prowess and box-office success provides justification for bad behavior and celebrity is often confused with accomplishment, these men are the embodiment of the best America has ever had to offer.

As Massachusetts State Senate President Robert Travaglini remarked during the Congressional Medal of Honor Convention's opening ceremony, "The greatest title of all is not 'world champion,' or 'top-selling artist,' it is 'Medal of Honor recipient.'" (Editor's note: "Congressional" describes the name of the convention and does not refer to the proper name for the Medal of Honor.)

I will not soon forget the men who filed past me on the way to their places of honor for the ceremony; some walked easily, others haltingly with the aid of a cane or a steadier brother's hand, and some younger recipients pushed older recipients in wheelchairs. Each recipient wore his Medal of Honor, the highest award given to servicemembers for extraordinary valor in combat against an enemy force.

In the 144 years since the first medals were presented, 3,460 medals have been awarded to members of the U.S. Armed Forces for valor above and beyond the call of duty.

Clarence Sasser, who received his medal for bravery during the war in Vietnam, presented a wreath in front of the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Infantry memorial in honor of Sgt. William Carney. Sergeant Carney was a Civil War hero and the first African-American to receive the Medal of Honor; his descendents were in attendance.

Boston hosted 68 of the 111 living recipients last week for their annual convention, the largest gathering ever of Medal of Honor recipients.

These men, who defied death while defending their nation and protecting their brothers in arms, have lived long and full lives.

The oldest living Medal of Honor recipient, John L. Finn, recently turned 96 years old. It has been nearly 65 years since he earned his medal while defending the Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station during the first attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941.

The average age of the men gathered in Boston last week -- veterans of World War II, and the Korea and Vietnam wars -- is 74.

Boston is only the second city to host the convention twice. In Oct. 2001, Bostonians traumatized by the events of September 11, warmly welcomed the Medal of Honor convention. Nearly five years later, they honored Boston with their return.

"Your presence in this city adds to its luster," Massachusetts Senator Travaglini said. "Your presence here is moving, and this nation is still grateful for the sacrifices you made long ago."

Massachusetts House Speaker Salvatore Dimasi hailed each recipient as the greatest of his own generation.

"A few years ago, Tom Brokaw coined the term, 'The Greatest Generation,' to describe those who fought honorably in World War II. In each generation there is exceptional greatness -- something inherent in the American fighting spirit. You embody this spirit.

"Thank you for the examples of honor, and courage and sacrifice that you have set for every generation of Americans."

The men who sat before me in front of the State House Sept. 27, looking surprised that on-lookers were so enthusiastically taking their pictures and rising to applaud them, may never have had a hit record or sneakers or theme park roller coasters named after them, but they are the true American superheroes.

They have set standards of true selflessness, sacrifice and courage for all Americans -- military and civilian -- to aspire to, and they give us hope that in our struggles, we might act as bravely.

I was so grateful to stand, and in some simple way, honor these men, for as Massachusetts Lt. Governor Kerry Healey said, "[They] are the reason that this truly is 'the land of the free and the home of the brave.'"