By David Wendell
Recently I had the privilege of donating copies of the book “Living With Honor” by Salvatore Giunta to area libraries. Giunta is the former staff sergeant of the 173rd Airborne from Hiawatha who, in 2010, was the first living member of the armed forces since the Vietnam War to receive the Medal of Honor.
As an Iowa native residing in Washington D.C. at the time, it was exhilarating to have the chance to attend the ceremony when the medal was presented to him by the president. Two years later, I was equally as adulated to attend the Iowa premiere of his autobiography in Cedar Rapids, where he was kind enough to sign those books with an inscription to library patrons. In typical modesty, however, he referred to others as the real heroes and that the medal is simply a symbol of all of them.
It is also a symbol of the sacrifices made by each warrior to achieve the peace that is expected to come when U.S. combat operations end in Afghanistan next year. How appropriate it is today to think of those sacrifices toward achieving peace, for it was exactly 40 years ago this week that Henry Kissinger signed the Paris Accord that formally brought an end to the Vietnam War. More than 115,000 Iowans served in the second-longest military conflict of U.S. history (Iraq/Afghanistan is the longest) and among them, six were to receive the highest award our nation can bestow upon a warrior.
George Day was one such recipient. His F-100 fighter jet was hit by enemy fire. Day bailed out, but his knee was shattered and arm broken in three places. He was captured by the Viet Cong and escaped, only to be caught again, shot twice, and tortured even further. Day remained a prisoner of war for six years until cessation of hostilities. He shared prison cells with other such captives as Sen. John McCain, Adm. James Stockdale, and Col. Jim Kasler (the most decorated pilot of the Vietnam era).
Having met each of them, I have been instilled with a deep respect for their patriotism. I am sure that every one of them would want to make certain that the 40th anniversary of the end of combat in Vietnam be recognized. They would not do this for themselves, but for those they knew who endured the same or similar pain and for the 60,000 who paid with an even higher sacrifice: their lives. Those are the ones whose names you see etched in black granite on the Mall in Washington D.C.
The Medal of Honor, which this year marks as its 150th anniversary, is a symbol of all heroic acts, recognized and unrecognized, committed in the name of achieving peace. Let us remember that, and everyone who served with honor, as we observe the 40th year since our troops came home from Southeast Asia.
There is no monument in Cedar Rapids/Marion bearing their names, and they never asked for one. They are the unsung heroes. May God bless them all.
David Wendell is a Marion historian. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org