Mullen Welcomes Medal of Honor Heroes to Pentagon

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.

 Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, address­es audi­ence mem­bers dur­ing a cer­e­mo­ny in the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes hon­or­ing the 150th anniver­sary of the Medal of Hon­or, March 25, 2011.
DOD pho­to by Navy Pet­ty Offi­cer 1st Class Chad J. McNee­ley
Click to enlarge

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)

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