HONOLULU — Fifty-two of America’s Medal of Honor recipients gathered at the National Cemetery of the Pacific to memorialize their fallen comrades Wednesday in what organizers believed was the largest assembly of men who have earned the highest U.S. military honor.
The Medal of Honor recipients — along with other veterans and spectators — dedicated a stone memorial to 30 missing-in-action honorees and 32 recipients interred at the ancient Hawaiian burial site known as the Punchbowl.
“Our country needs heroes,” said retired Navy Capt. Jerry Coffee, a former Vietnam prisoner of war and Silver Star recipient who was the keynote speaker. “You guys continue to fill big shoes, and that says something great about our nation.”
The ceremony was the first public event of the Medal of Honor Convention, an annual gathering that draws recipients from as far back as Word War II and as recent as the war in Afghanistan.
“It’s a wonderful ceremony,” said Allen Lynch, a former specialist 4th class who was awarded the medal for rescuing three comrades under fire in Vietnam. “What can you say? You’re at the Punchbowl among men and women who died for their country. It doesn’t get any better than this for remembering our freedoms.”
Surrounded by hills dotted with fresh tropical flowers and 34,000 gravestones, the mood of the hundreds who attended often reflected the site’s somber surroundings. Several organizations laid wreaths. The Air Forces Firing Detail pierced the air with a three-volley rifle salute, which followed a Marine Forces Pacific Band rendition of echo taps.
Between the moments of reflection, speakers paid tribute to the medal’s living recipients and thanked them for continuing to tell their stories to schools and community groups.
As the ceremony ended, many of the recipients exchanged greetings with well-wishers, or talked among themselves about their families and the small details of their lives, as old friends often do.
One of the newer members of the Medal of Honor’s rolls seemed awestruck to be included.
“It’s incredibly humbling to be standing here among all of these men,” said Sal Giunta, who earned his medal in Afghanistan after being hit by heavy enemy fire while rescuing his squad leader.
Giunta added that he hoped the recognition he receives serves to validate the efforts of the soldiers with whom he served, and those who continue to serve.
Several active-duty servicemembers and veterans were in attendance Wednesday, including Mathias Ferreira and Josh Wege, both medically retired former Marines who lost their legs while serving in Afghanistan.
Wege, of Campbellsport, Wis., doesn’t consider himself a hero – just a guy who got hurt. Judging by the long ovation for wounded warriors at the ceremony, his highly decorated comrades give him a lot more credit than that.
“It always gets to me how the [Medal of Honor recipients] are the first guys to come up to you to say thanks,” Wege said.
Ferreira, of Atlanta, said the medal recipients he had met remained impressive not only for their deeds in war, but in how they have carried themselves afterward.
“I can’t imagine what these guys went through,” Ferreira said. “They get a lot of credit and they deserve every bit of it. These guys are the true definition of heroes. But when you’re with these guys, you also see that they’re still normal people.”