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By Nick Wakeman

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A night of heroes

When I first arrived outside the ballroom for the annual awards dinner of the Metropolitan Washington chapter of the USO, the first person I saw was dressed in a tux like mine. Except this gentleman had a light blue ribbon and a star around his neck.

That's a Congressional Medal of Honor, I thought to myself as I walked by. Then I saw another and another and another. The more I saw, the more I began to doubt my first thought. There couldn't be this many Medal of Honor winners in one place. Maybe it was something else.

After I got a drink, I stepped up and ask one man wearing the star and ribbon what it was. My first thought was correct. The man I spoke with, Hershel "Woody" Williams, won the medal during World War II for his actions at Iwo Jima. He told me there were 34 attending the event.

I came to the USO dinner mostly for the chance to see and hear Jon Stewart of the Daily Show fame. He was recognized at the end of the evening with the Washington chapter's Merit Award.

As Stewart said when he took the stage, "Tonight, last really is least." Ahead of him on the program was a parade of heroes.

People such as Erick Lieb of the Coast Guard, who received the Air Medal, were honored. Lieb is a rescue swimmer. On a 10-hour mission during a storm in the Northwest last year, he saved five lives, helped 38 other people and rescued 13 animals.

One of the themes of the night was the medical corps of the different services. Representatives from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines were presented with plaques recognizing them for the care they are providing to wounded soldiers, sailors and marines. Each plaque was presented by a recovering veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These were people who had suffered grievous wounds and came that night to thank the people who cared for them.

One of the more moving moments came when Rick Yarosh, an Army specialist, spoke. His face and head bear thick scars from burns he suffered when his vehicle caught fire after being hit by insurgents in Iraq. More than 60 percent of his body suffered third-degree burns. Within three days of being injured, Yarosh was in San Antonio at the Defense Department's burn center. He said he wished he could go back and thank each person who had helped him on the multiple stops between Iraq and Texas. "They did so much for me," he said.

One wish did come true for Yarosh that night. He marveled at being in a room with so many Medal of Honor winners. He said he had recently told a superior officer that it was his dream to meet just one recipient and here he was with 34.

As he spoke about how honored he felt to be among them, one of the Medal of Honor winners spontaneously stepped up on the stage and put Yarosh in a bear hug. The crowd of about 700 erupted into a standing ovation.

When it was Stewart's turn on the stage, he was humble but funny. He was recognized for the time he spends coming to Walter Reed and other facilities to visit with patients. He said he gets more out of the visits than he gives.

He drew laughs from the crowd as he spoke about the dangers of driving south on Interstate 95 and he joked about the stories he could swap with the Medal of Honor winners.

From where I was sitting I could see Woody Williams. He laughed as hard as anyone else.

I learned most of Williams' story from the book, Medal of Honor, Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty, which was given to attendees. It profiles many of the living medal winners. Probably the best giveaway I've ever gotten at an event.

When I spoke with Williams before the dinner, I didn't ask him what he did to win his medal. It didn't seem appropriate, but I quickly found him in the book. It describes how at Iwo Jima he took a flame thrower and disabled several Japanese pillboxes, opening a gap in the lines that let the Marines advance. He was 22 years old.

Williams also was part of a short video played during the dinner. Much of his unit was killed at Iwo Jima. The medal he won "is not mine," he said on the video. "I hold it in trust for those who didn't come back."

His chapter in the Medal of Honor book is titled simply, Caretaker.

Click here for more information on the USO and the good work it does and how to get involved.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Mar 26, 2008 at 9:55 AM

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