Medal of Honor recipients honor civilian heroes
By CARLOS BONGIOANNI | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 26, 2015
ARLINGTON, Va. — Some of the nation’s most renowned military heroes gathered Wednesday to recognize and honor others.
To mark National Medal of Honor Day, 28 recipients of the highest military honor made a solemn pilgrimage to Arlington National Cemetery, where they paid tribute to those who selflessly served their country.
For many, it was a time of deep reflection.
“I have some men who were with me … all of them are in one grave there, four of them MIAs for more than 40 years,” said Bruce Crandall, who received the Medal of Honor for actions in Vietnam. “There are all sorts of other medal recipients who have passed away in recent years that are buried in there,” Crandall said. “My wife is out there. She’s holding a spot for me.”
After a wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the group attended a ceremony for three civilians who earned Citizen Service Before Self awards.
Since 2008, the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation has been presenting the awards for acts of extraordinary courage and service in local communities. The idea to create the awards came after Congress established March 25 as National Medal of Honor Day.
“The recipients immediately took the platform given to them by Congress and decided, ‘Let’s shift the focus to ordinary Americans who perform extraordinary deeds,’ ” said Ronald Rand, president and CEO of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation.
The hope, he said, is to pass on the message that “no matter who you are or where you are, you too can earn a medal like this someday.” You don’t have to be a military member to be a hero, he said.
Two of this year’s civilian honor awards were for heroism, and one was for service.
Michael G. Reagan, 67, was honored for founding the nonprofit Fallen Heroes Project, which provides hand-drawn portraits to families of servicemembers who have fallen in combat. Reagan, a Vietnam veteran from Edmonds, Wash., has created more than 4,000 free portraits.
“Mike draws two to three portraits a day, seven days a week,” said Medal of Honor recipient Brian Thacker, who read the citation during Wednesday’s ceremony. “His portraits are a crucial part of healing and remembrance for servicemember families.”
Alton Brieske of Port St. Lucie, Fla., was honored for heroism when he dove into a lake in December to pull a 92-year-old man from a sinking vehicle.
“Alton risked his life by diving into a lake known to have poisonous snakes and alligators,” Thacker said in reading the citation. “He acted unselfishly in rescuing someone while others stood around and watched.”
Brieske, 21, said it was a good thing a crowd had gathered after he jumped in the water. “I started shouting that I needed a hammer, and one of the bystanders said he had one in his truck.” Brieske used it to break out the car window. He pulled out the elderly man, who had suffered a heart attack before crashing into the lake. Once on land, Brieske, a pre-med student at Florida Atlantic University, used CPR to revive the man, who later died.
Jon Meis, 23, of Renton, Wash., risked his life in June when he pepper-sprayed and tackled a shooter at Seattle Pacific University while the gunman was reloading.
“Although one student was killed and three others injured, the casualties could have been much worse if Meis had not acted to protect others,” Thacker read from the citation.
For Brieske, who said he was surprised that anybody took note of his actions, Wednesday’s ceremony was beyond special. “Just to be in the presence of these gentlemen who are the true heroes of our nation” was a tremendous honor, he said.
The courage displayed by Brieske and Meis awed many of the Medal of Honor recipients, including Ryan Pitts, who received the medal for his actions in Afghanistan in 2008.
“What they did is amazing,” he said. “Without being in those situations, I don’t know how I would act. I would hope that I would be able to be as courageous as they were.”