Area high schools salute Medal of Honor recipients

By Peter Schworm and Sarah Roberts Globe Staff and Globe Correspondant September 16, 2015

ALDEN — As a Black Hawk helicopter touched down in a nearby park, two lines of high school students snapped to attention, shoulders back and eyes front. A fire truck ladder hoisted an American flag into a pale blue sky, and an honor guard stood at salute. 

It was a hero’s welcome at Malden Catholic High School for two recipients of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration. Nearly 50 of the 78 living recipients of the honor are in Boston for the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s annual convention, and about two dozen spent Wednesday morning visiting area high schools. At Malden Catholic, Vietnam War veterans Brian Thacker and Walter Marm Jr. received standing ovations as they were introduced. To a hushed crowd, both men recalled their combat experience and how it had shaped their lives, and said they shared their honor with those they fought beside.

“We wear the medal for all the great men and women we served with,” Marm said. “We are the caretakers.” 

From dramatic helicopter arrivals to resounding ovations from the crowd, the high school visits were marked by fanfare and solemn appreciation. They gave decorated veterans the chance to share their experiences with teenagers who barely remember the Sept. 11 attacks, much less the wars of previous generations. 

And they gave students a chance to hear firsthand from military heroes, bringing history to life and underscoring the depths of their sacrifice.

Marm, an Army platoon leader in the First Cavalry Division, received his medal for his actions during a pivotal 1965 battle in the Ia Drang Valley. Under heavy fire, Marm killed four advancing enemy soldiers, then deliberately moved into view to draw fire from a concealed machine gun, revealing its position.

He then charged about 100 feet across open ground and hurled grenades at the enemy, killing some of the eight insurgents manning the position, according to his medal citation. Although severely wounded, he then killed the remaining men. 

“It was one of the more intense battles of the Vietnam War,” he recalled to students, noting that its 50th anniversary was approaching. “We were very fortunate.”

Marm, 73, urged the students to appreciate the opportunities this country affords them, and avoid taking them for granted. 

“This is what America is all about,” he said. “You can be whatever you want to be.” 

Thacker, 70, received the Medal of Honor for his bravery in repelling an enemy attack in Kontum Province, then organizing a withdrawal “with complete disregard for his safety,” according to his citation. Wounded and unable to escape, he eluded the enemy for eight days before friendly forces regained control of the area. 

In poignant remarks, Thacker said his citation didn’t begin to tell the full story of that day, and that he owed his medal to many others. 

“This is not a me award,” he said. “It’s an us award.”

He recalled that three of his team members died that day, young men straight out of high school. 

“That’s what we lost,” he said. “My job is to continue their legacy.” 

After short talks, the men took questions from students, one of whom asked what they missed the most while they were overseas. 

“A cold beer,” Thacker said to laughter. In truth, he went on to say, “you miss just about everything.” 

Asked how receiving the Medal of Honor had changed his life, Thacker said it had deepened his sense of personal duty. 

“There’s an opportunity, and an obligation, to give back,” he said. “That’s what we’re here for.”

At Boston College High School, students welcomed Lieutenant Commander Tom Kelley, 76, a 1956 graduate of the Dorchester school who was honored for his actions during the Vietnam War. 

While on the Ong Muong Canal, Kelley maneuvered his ship between enemy fire and an armored troop carrier that had malfunctioned as it extracted troops from the canal bank. He sustained a serious head wound when an enemy rocket hit his ship, but managed to command his men and protect the troop carrier until the attack was over.

“You can be anything in this life. Live up to it,” Kelley said. “Anybody can reach down and do great things.” 

Another visiting medal winner, Vietnam War veteran Gary Wetzel, 67, of Milwaukee, was serving as gunman aboard a helicopter when two enemy rockets exploded inches away, blowing him into a rice paddy. Despite losing part of his left arm in the blast and passing out several times, Wetzel dragged himself to help his fellow crewmen.

While he recovered from his injuries, Wetzel was visited by soldiers he had helped save, he told students Wednesday. His fellow soldiers showed him photos of their families and loved ones, and thanked him for helping them get back home to them. 

“I didn’t join for the accolades or a pat on the back,” Wetzel said. But the visits reminded him why he had joined the military in the first place.

As Wetzel and Kelley stepped out of the helicopter, the crowd cheered. They were met by BC High’s senior class president, Trent Chinnaswamy, and vice president, Billy O’Carroll. 

“It’s pretty heartwarming that they can come out of all they’ve been through and still have a lot of vigor,” said O’Carroll. “To know the stories behind the individuals is incredible.”

After the school visits, the helicopters flew honorees to Boston Common for a State House visit.

On Friday, recipients will visit Memorial Church at Harvard University and have lunch with students who are veterans or in active duty.

Steve Annear of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at peter.schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.

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