By Noelle Bernard
THE MEDAL OF HONOR EXEMPLIFIES A SOLDIER’S COURAGE, INTEGRITY, VALOR, AND ABOVE ALL, SACRIFICE. This year is the 150th anniversary of the highest military honor bestowed to a servicemember for risking life in combat beyond the call of duty.
“For 150 years America has reserved its highest military honor, the Medal of Honor, for only it’s most elite and heroic warriors,” says Representative Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “The nearly 3,500 service members who have earned this honor are an uncommon breed, born with the type of courage few will ever possess. For their valor and unwavering dedication to country, they are forever worthy of our highest admiration.”
It is a medal recipients often say is far tougher to wear than it is to earn. The medal is the mark of an American hero, not a celebrity, says Medal of Honor recipient, Major General Patrick Henry Brady.
“The medal is a great facilitator,” Brady says. “It’s a door opener. It’s a way for us to get our nose under the tent so that we can talk to young people to help them avoid some of the roadblocks that we had to go through in our lifetime.”
Brady received the medal in 1969 for his actions as a helicopter pilot rescuing wounded soldiers during his second tour in the Vietnam War. He remembers the night as unextraordinary, just a part of his job.
“What I did that day was no different than what the guys in that unit did day in and day out for the ten months that I was in Vietnam,” Brady says. “That day, I would probably not even remember it had it not been written up and gotten some attention. That’s the best part of the medal, that someone else appreciated what you did and took the time to make a record of it.”
The treacherous rescue mission involved four flights into enemy territory in “zero-zero weather” obscuring vision. Brady commanded a UH-1H ambulance helicopter. He persisted after two previous aircrafts were shot down and rescued more than fifty severely wounded soldiers.
“When we landed they saluted our aircraft,” Brady says. “The appreciation of the troops on top of that mountain post when we came up out of that fog is something that’s stuck in my memory.”
The first Medal of Honor was presented to Union Army Private Jacob Parrott on March 25, 1863.
Iowa Senator James Grimes introduced the idea of the Medal of Honor to Congress in 1861 as a way to motivate the U.S. Navy and promote seamen like qualities, says Laura Jowdy, archivist for the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
“The reason we didn’t have these sort of awards for so long in our military is because it was seen as a European thing,” Jowdy says.
In 1862, a year after President Abraham Lincoln signed Grimes’ bill, the U.S. Army was given their own medal to honor soldiers who “distinguish themselves in battle.”
Jowdy said the history of the Medal of Honor reflects the history of America, in which men and women from every walk of life display courage and leadership.
“If you look at it just from a military history standpoint you’re looking at little pieces of history that add up to a bigger whole,” Jowdy says. “It’s these little instances of greatness that add up to show exactly what this country’s made of and what our potential is.”
For Brady, the source of the success in his life has been courage. Moreover, the foundation of courage for him is faith, the driving force behind his motivation in combat.
“I never experienced fear in combat,” Brady says. “My faith was a substitute for fear. I knew if I died doing what I was doing, what better way to die than to be saving the lives of America’s greatest citizens, their soldiers?”
Since the medal’s inception, 3,459 military servicemembers, including officers, have received the honorable distinction. Today, there are eighty living recipients from World War II to the Afghanistan War.
“It’s really a history of the mix of America and what makes us work and tick,” Jowdy says.
Brady, now seventy-six, knew from a young age he wanted to fly. Reminiscing about his career in the Army, the former helicopter pilot says he would not change a thing.
“As I look at my life, I have many regrets,” Brady says. “When I look at my service in Vietnam rescuing patients, I have none. There’s nothing that I could have done that I would do over or that I could’ve done better that I didn’t do.”