GETTYSBURG, Pa. — As Medal of Honor recipient Brian Thacker approached the microphone to deliver his speech, he was greeted by an old friend.
Mike Hietikko had emerged from the crowd to offer him a proud military salute. Army buddies in Vietnam, this was the first time the two had seen each other in 40 years.
The two men were brought together on Wednesday morning at a flag-raising ceremony for the Congressional Medal of Honor Society at Lincoln Square in Gettysburg. The society, which brings together living Medal of Honor recipients, will be holding its annual convention in Gettysburg next September. To honor Gettysburg's position as the host town, an official Medal of Honor Society flag was hoisted onto the flagpole at the ceremony, held to kick off a year of planning for the convention.
"Gettysburg has a lot of historical significance with the Medal of Honor," Robert Monahan, president and CEO of the convention said. "
Sixty-three Medal of Honor recipients fought in the battle, including the only female to ever receive the medal."
The Medal of Honor is the nation's highest military honor, given to service members who have gone above and beyond the call of duty in combat. Two of the men who have received such honors, 1st Lt. Brian Thacker and 1st Lt. Barney Barnum, attended the flag raising ceremony.
Thacker, who fought with an army field artillery unit in Vietnam, earned his medal while serving with Hietikko. After his unit came under superior enemy fire
and it became clear that their position could no longer be held, Thacker directed all of his men to withdraw, staying behind to provide cover so that all friendly forces could escape safely. He then ordered friendly artillery fire to hit his own position so that his comrades could had even more time to get out of harm's way, according to Thacker's Medal of Honor citation.
Injured in the process, Thacker was eventually medevaced out of the fighting zone without knowing what had ever happened to Hietikko and the rest of his men. That changed last year when Hietikko, who works with the National Park Service in Gettysburg, finally learned of Thacker's Medal of Honor achievements and reached out to him. Wednesday was the first time they had spoken face to face since the Vietnam War.
"It's very emotional for me," Hietikko said. "The last time I saw him he was ordering me off that hill."
Sharing the story of Thacker's bravery and its impact on other people's lives is one of the main goals of the society.
"When it started it was just a chance for us to get together and feel normal," Thacker said. "Now it's not the same as it was 30 years ago. Now we are trying to leave something behind, something for the kids."
Out of this desire grew the Congressional Medal of Honor Character Development Program, designed to teach civic education and citizenship in schools. Both Thacker and Barnum visited Adams County schools on Wednesday as part of that program. Medal of Honor Society members will be in and out of Gettysburg throughout the upcoming year, making appearances and working on several events leading up to the convention. "This is the kind of event that brings out the best in communities," Thacker said, inviting Gettysburg schools and community members alike to get involved with the convention and its preparations.
"This is not a me award," Thacker said, pointing the medal hanging around his neck, "this is an us award." And with that he stepped off the stage to greet his old friend.