As You Were Saying: Elite medal honors true heroes

By Thomas A. Kennedy Boston Herald September 19, 2015

It sometimes seems as if everyone is a “hero.” From superstar athletes to fictional comic-book characters to air-guitar champions, just about everyone is given the moniker these days. However, very few of us are truly heroes. Very few of us have accomplished truly exceptional acts of self-sacrifice.

Fortunately for us, members of this elite, precious class — true heroes — have spent part of this week in Boston. The Congressional Medal of Honor Society wraps up its annual convention tomorrow. It’s an event that celebrates the exceptional virtue of the almost 3,500 recipients of the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest honor for singular acts of valor.

There are just 79 living recipients of the medal, making this convention’s honorees one of the most exclusive clubs in the world.

They include some of Massachusetts’s finest:

• Retired Capt. Thomas G. Kelley was born in Somerville. During the Vietnam War, Kelley led a column of eight river assault boats on a mission to extract an Army infantry company. When the convoy came under attack by Viet Cong, Kelley moved his boat in front of enemy forces in order to protect a disabled craft. Despite suffering a severe head wound and the loss of an eye, Kelley successfully engaged the enemy and led the convoy to safety.

• Then there’s Retired Capt. Thomas J. Hudner of Concord. When his squadron mate’s plane was forced down behind enemy lines during the Korean War, Hudner immediately flew guard over the downed pilot, protecting him from enemy troops swarming the area. Fully aware that the terrain and weather meant escape and survival on foot were unlikely, Hudner nevertheless intentionally crash-landed his own plane on the mountainous terrain and attempted to extract the injured pilot from the burning wreck.

• Lowell-born Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts demonstrated incredible courage while stationed in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, in 2008. When his unit’s post came under assault by a wave of rocket-propelled grenades, Pitts sustained heavy bleeding and critical wounds. Incredibly, Pitts fought on, taking control of the post and laying suppressive fire even after reinforcements arrived.

It is vital to share stories like these and to celebrate true heroism in action. While few of us are capable of the extraordinary acts these Medals of Honor represent, all of us can draw inspiration from our nation’s most impressive citizens.

In fact, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society and its nonprofit Foundation run a character development program specifically to cultivate in our nation’s youth the characteristics exemplified by our national heroes — their moral virtues, practical judgment, and civic understanding. As part of this program, during the convention, medal recipients visited Boston-area schools to meet with our nation’s future leaders and share their stories.

Boston is the cradle of liberty and birthplace of our armed forces.

The word “hero” is everywhere. But true heroes are rare. This week, Boston got a chance to remember the true meaning of the word, welcoming a few exceptional citizens who exemplify our nation’s most sacred principles.

Thomas A. Kennedy, chairman and CEO of Raytheon, serves on the board of the Congressional Medal Of Honor Foundation. Talk back at letterstoeditor@bostonherald.com.

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