ARLINGTON, Va. — Michael Landsberry wasn’t in a war zone when he gave his life protecting others.
It was Oct. 21, 2013, when a 12-year-old boy armed with a semi-automatic handgun opened fire at a Nevada middle school where Landsberry was a math teacher. Two students had been wounded. Still, Landsberry approached the boy and tried to talk him into giving up the gun, giving students time to flee. He was fatally shot.
It was for acts of heroism and selflessness such as Landsberry’s that Medal of Honor recipients on Tuesday honored ordinary Americans showing courage in extraordinary situations. Since 2008, the military heroes have given out the Citizen Honors Awards to three people each year on National Medal of Honor Day.
The panel of veterans looks for characteristics embodied by the Medal of Honor — selfless service, patriotism, courage and integrity — as they consider nominations submitted across the U.S. There were more than 200 entries this year, according to Ronald T. Rand, president and CEO of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation.
“The (Medal of Honor) recipients believe that by … recognizing people — normal people — who do extraordinary things, that they can demonstrate to a larger population across America the fact that everyone has the ability within them when confronted with tough choices and tough situations to do extraordinary and even heroic things,” Rand said.
Landsberry was a 45-year-old former Marine and member of the Nevada National Guard who had served two tours in Afghanistan. He is the first to be awarded the honor posthumously. His widow accepted the award on his behalf at the ceremony, held at Arlington National Cemetery.
“He recognized that there was a danger. He recognized that there was extreme risk to himself,” Rand said. “But to protect the students at his school — and maybe even to try and protect the young shooter — (he) put himself in harm’s way voluntarily to try and defuse an extremely dangerous situation. And in doing that, he saved the lives of who knows how many students while giving up his own.”
Also honored were Connor Stotts, a 19-year-old Eagle Scout who saved friends from drowning in a riptide, and Troy Yocum, an Army veteran who walked 7,880 miles across America to raise $1.3 million to support military families as part of his work to help other veterans.
Yocum received the award for an “ongoing act of service” for his founding of Active Heroes, a charity focused on preventing veteran suicides. The nonprofit provides lifetime assistance funds for wounded veterans, repairs homes for military families, offers a fitness team-building program with 10,000 active veterans, and is building a 144-acre retreat for military families in Shepherdsville, Kentucky.
“It’s not in the same category of extreme valor as the actions of Connor or Michael, but it clearly is in the category of extreme service to the community,” Rand said. “It still demonstrates courage and selfless service and patriotism and integrity. And he’s making a difference.”
Yocum, 35, doesn’t think he deserves the award; he thinks someone older who has had more time to give back to the community deserves it instead. And hearing about the feats of the other recipients makes him wonder whether his 17½-month hike through the U.S. and continuing efforts measure up.
But he hopes that accepting the award will bring attention to his cause, which he was propelled to by the suicides of his grandfather, a World War II veteran, and a close battle buddy. He has also watched other friends struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts.
“I’m completely humbled by it,” Yocum said. “I don’t do my work to be honored … when I served in Iraq, I just did my job, and after Iraq, I just wanted to do something to help more and more veterans and their families.
“It’s an honor and privilege to be chosen as a hero by my heroes,” he said.
Stotts, a sophomore at the University of Southern California on a Marine-Option Naval ROTC scholarship, also received the award for an act of courage.
Or rather, three.
On the night of his baptism in July 2011, Stotts was at a youth outing at the beach in Oceanside, Calif., when a riptide swept up three friends. Stotts, who had lifeguard training, pulled one friend to shore and returned to rescue a second. A third was losing consciousness, and he placed her on his back — sometimes holding her arms to keep her from falling off — and swam back to shore with one arm.
“He knew there was great risk to himself,” Rand said. “And ... knowing he was exposing himself to danger, he did it not once, not twice, but three times. That’s pretty extraordinary.”
For Stotts, rescuing his friends was instinct.
“There was some panic that gripped me, there was fear,” Stotts said. “But mostly nothing was going through my head. It was just like a reflex.”
Stotts said he and his family were “floored” when they heard he had won the award, since they didn’t think his feat was on par with some of the other nominees.
“Every day in civilian life, somewhere, somebody does something that is on the level of above and beyond,” said Hershel Williams, a former Marine who received the Medal of Honor for the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima. “I enjoy coming here and witnessing what they did and reading their stories. It’s just as interesting to me as the stories of Medal of Honor recipients.”
For more information about Active Heroes, visit www.activeheroes.org.