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Age, health chip away at roster of Medal of Honor recipients

America's greatest war heroes are dying.

There are 81 living recipients of the famed Medal of Honor, the military's highest decoration for valor in combat "above and beyond the call of duty."

More than 50 of them will be in Honolulu Oct. 1-6 at the Hale Koa Hotel for the annual Medal of Honor Convention.

Close brushes with death in warfare somehow didn't claim them, but old age, disease and other factors are now taking a toll on their ranks.

At the time of last year's convention in Louisville, Ky., there were 85 living recipients. There were 91 in 2010, 96 in 2009, and 100 in 2008.

Retired Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan J. Kellogg Jr., a Kailua resident who smothered a grenade in a Vietnam rice paddy and survived the blast, remembers there were 157 living Medal of Honor awardees in 1982, when the last such convention was held in Hawaii.

"I don't know if you can really say there's a rhyme or reason (for the dwindling numbers) except for, they are veterans who are aging," said Victoria Kueck, director of operations for the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, which was chartered by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958.

U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, a Marine combat veteran, is among those who have questioned why so few of the medals have been awarded during the nation's recent wars. Hunter last year referred to the award submission process as "onerous and intimidating."

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There are no living Medal of Honor recipients from the Iraq War, three from Afghanistan, 54 from Vietnam, 12 from Korea and 12 remaining from World War II, according to the Medal of Honor Society.

U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye is the last Medal of Honor recipient living in the state from the vaunted 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team of mostly Japanese-American soldiers who fought tenaciously in Italy and France, officials said.

All of which makes this year's gathering that much more unique.

"Hawaii is honored to host 54 of the 81 Medal of Honor recipients," said retired Adm. Tom Fargo, co-chairman of the Medal of Honor Convention host committee and former head of U.S. Pacific Command. "They have given a great deal to our country, and they continue to give and serve in local communities."

The war heroes will dedicate a memorial stone to the 32 Medal of Honor recipients buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl.

School visits and meetings with students are planned, a book signing will be held at the Hale Koa Hotel, a downtown "block party" will take place on Nimitz Highway, and a "Patriot Award Dinner" aboard the Battleship Missouri will include retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, secretary of veterans affairs and a Kauai native.

The convention is being funded entirely by contributions, with more than a dozen corporate sponsors committed to be part of the event, but organizers haven't reached their $1.5 million fundraising goal and more sponsors are welcome, officials said.

"It will be pretty good," said Kellogg, who noted that two of the Afghanistan awardees, Army Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry, 33, and former Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, 27, are scheduled to attend.

Petry was wounded clearing the courtyard of a house in Paktia province in 2008, but fought on as an enemy grenade landed near him and two fellow Rangers. Petry unhesitatingly picked up the grenade and threw it, but it exploded as he released it, amputating his right hand.

Giunta and his team were ambushed in the Korengal Valley in 2007. Giunta ran exposed through enemy fire to aid his wounded squad leader, threw grenades, and raced to the top of a hill in search of another soldier who was being carried away by two enemy fighters. Giunta killed one fighter, wounded the other, and recovered his comrade.

Kellogg said it's good for the older Medal of Honor recipients to get together with the younger ones. Giunta is the youngest attending, while World War II veteran George Sakato, a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team who was born in California, is one of the oldest at 91.

"We look over there (at the recent awardees) and say, that was us at one time," Kellogg said. "When I got my award I think I was 29. Now I'm 69."

Kellogg's path to a Medal of Honor came in the blink of an eye on the night of March 11, 1970, in a rice paddy in Vietnam.

While evacuating a fallen comrade, Kellogg's unit came under heavy fire. Then 26, Kellogg was crouching next to an embankment when an enemy soldier tossed a grenade into their midst.

He jammed it into the mud, but it exploded beneath him, causing multiple injuries. Kellogg said what helped was that he was wearing his flak jacket and another one he was carrying that had belonged to a fallen soldier.

A total of 21 Medals of Honor were awarded to 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team soldiers for their bravery in World War II.

According to the 442nd Veterans Club, of the eight soldiers with the 100th Battalion who received the honor, seven were from Hawaii. Of the 13 soldiers with the 442nd to be awarded the medal, four were from the state, the veterans club said.

Inouye, who lost his right arm charging German machine gun nests in Italy, is the only one left from either unit still living in Hawaii, according to convention organizers.

Kellogg, meanwhile, is the only other known living Medal of Honor recipient to call Hawaii home, officials said.

Next month, he'll have some company among the rare group of Americans — often humble and unassuming like Kellogg — who have earned the right through blood and bravery to wear the blue-ribboned Medal of Honor.

"We're just going to have a good time and enjoy ourselves and get out and see the public," Kellogg said.
 

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