Arlington, Virginia was the site of an inspirational gathering of American heroes last week.
It was a fitting place to meet since 400 or so recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military honor, are buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
More than 30 recipients of the CMH gathered to honor three individuals who also went beyond the call of duty in civilian life. One of the three, Dr. Jordy Cox, spent three weeks providing emergency medical care after the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Although he had few resources to work with in the earthquake zone Cox spent countless hours working to bring needed relief to the suffering Haitians.
In looking back on what he accomplished to earn the Citizen Service Above Self award, Cox said the worst part was fearing he'd done too little. That's a typical reaction of those who go well beyond the call of duty in helping their fellow man.
Just like the Medal of Honor recipients in the audience, Dr. Cox felt overwhelmed, undeserving and counted himself just "one of a lot of a lot of people doing voluntary relief work.
Another reason for the unique gathering of heroes last Thursday was to mark the anniversary of the awarding of the first-ever Congressional Medal of Honor given in 1863. There are now 91 MOH recipients still alive today.
I was fortunate enough to know one of them – Gino Merli who received the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Truman in 1945 for heroism during World War II. Being the son of a coal miner, the Scranton native's slight stature may have masked the tough inner resolve of a battlefield hero.
Gino Merli was just a teenager when he went ashore at Omaha Beach on D-Day in 1944 and participated in the Battle of the Bulge in December of the same year. He was awarded his MOH for action in Belgium, when his company was overwhelmed by a superior force, and he stayed with his machine gun to cover their retreat.
In addition to the MOH, Merli received two Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star, the Battle of the Bulge Medal, and the Humanitarian Award of the Chapel of Four Chaplains for his actions during World War II.
When I visited him at his Lackawanna County home shortly before his death in 2002, Merli was at first reluctant to talk about his experiences, but then shared some of his most intense moments. He did admit that one of his proudest moments was to be among a group of MOH recipients who accompanied former NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw to the Normandy beaches in 1984. There, Merli and the surviving old soldiers were able to honor those who didn't make it back – the fallen comrades they regarded as the real heroes who should have been decorated.
Merli was one of the inspirations for Brokaw's best-selling book, The Greatest Generation. And that's how he regarded his service – as a member of an entire generation who sacrificed to win the war, and not as an individual hero.
By Jim Zbick