An American soldier is not just an individual doing a particular job, even if an occasionally hazardous one. He or she is also meant to embody certain virtues, both of their branch and their nation.
Twenty-four soldiers who served with the Third Army/U.S. Army Central have exemplified those values by earning the highest distinction for bravery and sacrifice in the service of their country, the Congressional Medal of Honor. On Friday, their modern-day successors formally recognized their example at the opening of the Hall of Heroes inside Army Central headquarters at Shaw Air Force Base.
The new display inside Patton Hall gives the soldiers who walk its halls a daily reminder of the standard they should strive toward. Lt. Gen. James L. Terry, Army Central commanding general, praised the contributions of the "greatest generation" that fought World War II, including 23 of Third Army's Medal of Honor recipients, who earned their medals under the legendary Gen. George S. Patton.
Twelve of the soldiers honored in the Hall of Heroes gave their lives in the line of duty, but one, Master Sgt. Nicholas Oresko, was the oldest living recipient of the Medal of Honor before he passed away earlier this month at the age of 96.
Oresko arrived in France two months after the D-Day landing, and was soon involved in the push into German territory. It was Oresko's bravery under enemy fire during the Battle of the Bulge in January 1945 that earned him his medal.
"Sgt. Oresko ordered his platoon to move forward. No one moved," Terry said. "He repeated the order. Still, no one responded. He said later, 'I said to myself, "Well, someone has to go." So I decided to go myself.'" Oresko raced 30 feet ahead of his men, forcing them to follow. He was hit by German fire but managed to take out two machine gun nests and killed 12 enemy soldiers. He was later presented with the Medal of Honor by President Harry Truman.
While the Third Army earned itself the most glory during the Second World War, Terry said many other service members are also worthy of veneration.
"Having read several recent accounts of American soldiers, airmen and marines operating in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places, I can assure you that heroes still exist among us today," he said.
The latest recipient of the medal honored Friday, and the only post-World War II inductee to the Hall of Heroes, is Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith.
Sgt. Smith was part of the initial deployment into Iraq in 2003 when his unit, stationed at an impromptu prisoner-of-war camp, came under attack by a company-sized force of Iraqis. Armed with handheld grenades and anti-tank weaponry, Smith made his way to a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on a damaged personnel carrier.
Smith was mortally wounded in the encounter, but he is credited with killing 50 enemy soldiers and allowing his wounded comrades the cover they needed to withdraw.
Even beyond the military, the general noted the heroism of civilians, from first responders who rushed into action on Sept. 11 to the Nevada schoolteacher and National Guard airman who died confronting a school shooter last week.
"Heroism and honor are a part of our American heritage," Terry said. "These values are deeply woven into the very fabric of our great nation."