WASHINGTON — Navy Adm. Mike Mullen joined service leaders today in honoring those he called America’s “bravest of the brave” in a Pentagon ceremony marking the 150th anniversary of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award.
Thirty of the 85 living recipients of the Medal of Honor, along with their families, joined the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and senior service leaders in the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes, where their names are engraved on wall hangings among the 3,454 recipients. Today’s military leaders thanked the veterans for their service — most rendered decades ago — while an Army band played military marches, “America the Beautiful” and other patriotic songs before the ceremony.
“For those of us who serve, and have had the opportunity to meet many of you, we marvel at your service, marvel at your dedication, and marvel at your caring,” said Mullen, who stood nearby U.S. and service-branch flags and oversized replicas of the Navy, Army and Air Force versions of the medal.
The Medal of Honor recipients serve as mentors to the nation’s service members and are a bridge between the military and civilian communities, Mullen said. “Your help in connecting us to the American people is a very important endeavor,” he said.
Mullen called the characteristics that embody the medal recipients –- honor, sacrifice, and service –- “iconic and quintessentially American.” President Abraham Lincoln sought and received an act of Congress to create the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, Mullen said, noting the medal came from “one of the darkest chapters in American history, and from the man credited with saving” the United States.
The medal is “bestowed on the bravest of the brave for the most selfless and noble acts ever witnessed on the battlefield,” Mullen said. It is the most democratic of awards, he added, having no regard for rank, race or class of recipients. More than half of its recipients did not survive the battle for which it was earned, he said.
“These heroes –- and I do not use that word lightly -– have demonstrated how just one American can not only make a difference, but can often make history,” Mullen said.
“We give thanks that here, today, we live in a country where brave young Americans are still willing to give their all in defense of our nation,” the chairman said. He noted that the 10 years that today’s military has been at war is the longest period of war in American history.
Leo K. Thorsness, a retired Air Force colonel and president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society received the coveted medal for his actions in Vietnam. The 85 living recipients of the medal range in age from 26 to 90, he said, and they have the “common thread of passionate love of country.”
“We wear this for those who can’t,” Thorsness said, referring to the medals hanging by a light blue sash around the necks of the recipients. “Many more are deserving and didn’t receive it, either because they slipped through the cracks or there were no eyewitnesses” to their valor, he said.
Today’s ceremony marked a personal anniversary for one medal recipient. March 31 will mark 40 years since Brian M. Thacker of Wheaton, Md., was pinned down on a mountain ridge in Vietnam’s Kontum province, where he made a strategic decision to try to fend off his North Vietnamese attackers alone rather than risk the lives of all the men in his unit.
Thacker was a 25-year-old Army first lieutenant who had extended his time in college ROTC in the hopes of avoiding the draft, he recalled today. But while fulfilling his military commitment in September 1970, he was sent to Vietnam, where “from the American point of view, we were turning the war over” to the South Vietnamese.
On March 31, 1971, Thacker was the team leader of an artillery battery on a mountaintop observation fire base collocated with South Vietnamese units when they were overrun by a much larger contingent of North Vietnamese soldiers. The enemy used rockets, grenades, flamethrowers and automatic weapons, while Thacker’s group had just one machine gun. Three of his five men were killed in the first 15 minutes.
Thacker said he had known for some time he didn’t want to make a career of the military, but that did not hold him back in service or combat. “If I got any criticism, it was that I couldn’t be reined in,” he said.
It was with that focus and determination that Thacker encouraged his troops through hours of close combat while he directed airstrikes from an exposed position. By late afternoon, Thacker determined his unit would have to withdraw. He stayed behind — alone, and with only an M‑16 rifle — to direct airstrikes on his own position to suppress the enemy while his unit climbed the steep terrain to a level where helicopters could reach them.
Wounded and unable to catch up to his men, Thacker made his way down the mountain and hid in thick vegetation, eluding the enemy for eight days until he was rescued.
Even after 40 years, Thacker said, he still thinks daily about the men who served with him –- and died –- on that mountaintop.
“I get to wake up to a new sunrise every day because of their sacrifices,” he said.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)