Thunderbird and a matter of medals at Gettysburg convention
By CARLOS BONGIOANNI | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 25, 2013
GETTYSBURG, Pa. — Military medals matter. To some, they matter so much they’re willing to acquire them in ways that others deem inappropriate.
To illustrate, consider this episode that took place on the sidelines of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s annual convention held this year at the site where the historic Civil War battle was fought and where President Abraham Lincoln gave his enduring Gettysburg Address.
Retired Marine Reserve Col. John Folsom was in the parking lot of the Wyndham Gettysburg Hotel, where the MOH awardees were staying for their six-day convention, which ended Sunday. Folsom and a group of comrades were standing guard, so to speak, over a beautifully restored 1956 sky-blue Ford Thunderbird, covered with elaborate paintings of combat scenes. (See photo gallery at right and read more on the Thunderbird below.)
As Folsom was detailing the car’s history, a steady flow of passers-by stopped to have a look at it. A Marine veteran, wearing a jacket emblazoned with various combat, and unit badges and patches and a stack of military ribbons was among them.
Folsom, whose eye immediately caught sight of the Marine’s top ribbon, called over his friend to have a look and asked him, “Dick, do you know what that ribbon there is?” he asked, pointing to the navy-blue, gold and scarlet-red striped device.
Dick Woodson, who works for the car’s owner, came over and listened as Folsom explained with admiration that the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the ribbon of which the veteran was wearing, was the highest non-combat honor a military member could get.
At Folsom’s prompting, the veteran began to tell the circumstances behind the medal. He was in Vietnam. A drunk Indian, as he called him, wanted to kill the unit’s gunnery sergeant because he wouldn’t give the Indian any more beer. When the Indian started brandishing his weapon, the gunney ran to hide. The veteran then took action, tackling and subduing the Indian and saving the gunney’s life.
At the Indian’s special court-martial, the presiding officer said the Marine’s brave actions should be awarded.
It was quite a stirring story. Everybody listening seemed impressed, including Folsom, who then asked, who presented the medal?
The Marine veteran faltered for a second and then said he wrote the citation for the medal himself. He explained that the unit’s captain who allegedly witnessed the event never put the paperwork in for a medal. The gunnery sergeant, the only other witness, is now dead. At an association meeting some years back, everybody in the Marine veteran’s unit said he deserved the award and voted, he said, that he should have the medal. So he wrote his own citation.
Something in the tone of the conversation changed in that moment.
Folsom, with a slim cigar clenched between his teeth in a manner strikingly similar to Clint Eastwood in an old Western, didn’t mince words.
“If I were you, I’d take that ribbon off,” Folsom said, his voice no longer filled with admiration.
He went on to explain that servicemembers are not allowed to write their own citations and that these types of awards need to be vetted and researched. Sometimes it takes years to verify.
The other Marine insisted he deserved the medal and repeated his reasons why.
Folsom pointed out that if the Navy and Marine Corps Medal was not officially presented through the proper channels, it was suspect. Therefore, all the ribbons on the Marine’s chest were suspect. “Maybe you were awarded that Purple Heart, maybe you weren’t,” Folsom said, making the same point of the other ribbons stacked row upon row.
The conversation was progressively feeling more uncomfortable.
After Folsom walked away to engage others who had stopped by to look at the Thunderbird, the Marine had a few choice, salty words to say of the colonel.
For the Marine who risked his own life to save the gunney’s life, it was only right to be awarded a medal that even the presiding court-martial officer said he deserved. It mattered so much to him, he took what he thought were the necessary actions to have it.
Afterwards, Folsom told how he was awarded the same medal for saving the life of a Marine who fell off a ship that had just docked at Okinawa’s White Beach Naval Facility on Sept. 13, 1991. The Marine who hit the side of the ship while holding onto a rope was knocked out upon impact and subsequently sank below the water. Risking being sucked into the ship’s cooling pumps, Folsom dived in and brought the unconscious Marine to the surface, saving his life.
Folsom knows the military is not perfect in recording every act of heroism and submitting the proper paperwork needed to award such deeds. But it’s immensely important to follow established guidelines, he said, to ensure the integrity of those awards that are presented.
As for the Thunderbird, the entire car, inside and out, from the front chrome bumper to the back spare wheel hub and trunk, was a tribute to Medal of Honor recipients who had been recognized through proper channels. On the dash board, 80 sets of dog tags representing living MOH recipients were painted – although since the painting and restoration project began, two of them have died, and others have been or will be awarded the medal.
The plan was to get MOH awardees attending the convention to sign the hood of the car. Afterwards, a coat of finish would be applied to seal their signatures, and the car would be prepped to be sold by the Barrett-Jackson Auction Company in Scottsdale, Ariz., sometime in January.
According to Folsom, Army veteran Ronnie Rains of Odessa, Texas, owns the car and plans to turn over the car’s title, just before the auction, to the Wounded Warriors Family Support group, of which Rains is a board member.
Folsom, the founder of WWFS, said their group expects the car to sell for upwards of $1 million. Half of sale price will go as a charitable contribution to WWFS, and the other half to the Medal of Honor Society, he said.