Medal of Honor

The nation says thanks to veterans. Strong attendance expected at local events

The Washington Times
November 08, 2001, Thursday, Final Edition

BYLINE: Carl S. Ey; SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

SECTION: PART M; WASHINGTON WEEKEND; Pg. M15

LENGTH: 1645 words

“I think you are going to see people come out for Veterans Day ceremonies all around the country, and I think the catalyst is this 11th of September.”
Concise and to the point; that’s Harvey C. “Barney” Barnum Jr., since July the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for reserve affairs – and just coincidentally one of the Washington area’s three living recipients of the Medal of Honor.
“People are realizing what being an American is all about, and they are realizing that everything that they have enjoyed for all of their lives that they took for granted is in jeopardy,” says Mr. Barnum, 61, who received his Medal of Honor for taking the place of a fallen company commander during intense combat in Vietnam. Just last month, he stepped down as president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

“They want that protected, so who is going to protect it? GI Joe.”

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It’s another reminder that more is at stake this Veterans Day, Sunday , than at any time since perhaps World War II.

As if reminders were needed, the day that began as Armistice Day to commemorate the hour, the day and the date in 1918 when the guns of World War I fell silent on Europe’s western front – the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – has been expanded this year to make Nov. 11 through 17 National Veterans Awareness Week.
It’s meant as a time when veterans organizations will work with elementary and high school teachers to help students understand the sacrifices of war veterans and their contributions to the country. That is one more way to make everyone recall that while Memorial Day remembers the nation’s war dead, Veterans Day honors the living, the ones who came back.

Although the Senate resolution that set aside Veterans Awareness Week was passed in August – before the world changed utterly – it could be seen as prescient.

“We are at war this year,” says Brian Thacker, 56, who received the Medal of Honor for single-handedly providing covering fire as an Army first lieutenant in Vietnam so his fellow soldiers could escape a besieged fire base. Today he is chief of the Management Services Division of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“When you are at the beginning of a war, you don’t know the cost,” Mr. Thacker says, underlining the uncertainties of even a conflict less shadowy than the current one. “As a veteran, it is an uncomfortable feeling, but you haven’t seen the casualties yet.”

Neither Mr. Barnum nor Mr. Thacker would call himself a hero. Nor would Alfred Rascon, 56, director of the U.S. Selective Service System since May. Mr. Rascon, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Chihuahua, Mexico, received his Medal of Honor for saving the lives of comrades in Vietnam as a medic in a reconnaissance platoon of the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

He says, in effect, that a hero is a person who does what he has to do without making a fuss about it.

“The hero is sometimes that person that is next to you and never comes back and says, ‘Look what I did,’ ” Mr. Rascon says. “That common hero is acclaimed for what he is but no one ever noticed before.”

Even so, these men tend to acknowledge that what may be a new crop of heroes – different, perhaps, from the kind the nation has seen before – is on its way.

“When you see the response that the country made in regard to the World Trade Center and the terrorist attacks, it should not come as any surprise, that willingness to roll up your sleeves,” Mr. Thacker says. “The response has always been there.”

At the least, Mr. Barnum says, the terrorist attacks have made civilians recognize the importance of the armed forces.

“I think it is going to make people respect those in uniform even more. You will see an outward display of thanks to those in uniform. The terrorist attacks inspired a sense of patriotism.”

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These Medal of Honor recipients, who are among just 150 living members of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, plan to structure their holiday this Sunday around the Veterans Day National Ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
Mr. Barnum will be on the dais to represent the society, a “band of brothers” founded in 1946 – first to preserve the ideals embodied in the medal and also to succeed the original Medal of Honor Legion, a group formed in 1890 to protect the medal’s integrity from the claims of impostors.

The society, officially chartered by President Eisenhower in 1958, proudly asserts that it hopes to see no additional inductees. It is among the veterans organizations that form the Veterans Day National Committee.
Mr. Rascon will be there for the annual wreath-laying ceremony of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the unit he served with in Vietnam.

Mr. Thacker, at the ceremony not just as a Medal of Honor recipient, but as a representative of the Department of Veterans Affairs , which is in charge of the event, will greet and escort the public officials, military officers and members of veterans groups who every year attend as honored guests. These may include the president, though in keeping with new security measures, his plans will not be made public until the last minute.

Though it is the high point of the day, the Arlington ceremony is just one of many events to be held throughout the area on Sunday. They are designed not for mourning, but for celebrating the spirit of the country.

“One of the things that I am strong about is that we have to get on with our lives,” Mr. Rascon says as he reflects on the impact of terrorism’s war on the United States. “These violent acts should not bring anyone to their knees. It happened, and we have to look to the future and get on with the mission of finding out who these people are for the sake of all women and children in this country.”

Carl S. Ey is a U.S. Army major attached to the Military District of Washington at Fort McNair.