It has been 59 years since Hershel "Woody" Williams received a Congressional Medal of Honor. It has been 60 years since Walter Ehlers received his.
Time has weathered their faces and slowed their steps, but it has done little to lessen the reverence with which others regard them. Like many of the 130 living recipients of the Medal of Honor, the highest award for U.S. military valor in battle, Williams and Ehlers travel the country like celebrities, attending events in their honor and speaking to schoolchildren about the meaning of freedom.
On Monday, as Williams, Ehlers and 14 other recipients attended a charity golf tournament and banquet at Lansdowne Resort in Leesburg, they shook hands and received well-wishers. Hole 10 on the resort's course was dedicated in honor of Ehlers, the only surviving medal recipient to fight in the D-Day invasion.
Such honors come big and small, the recipients said, but they are a testament to the ways in which, decades later, the medals continue to shape their lives.
"I didn't have a life before the medal," said Ehlers, who described himself as a "farmer boy" from Kansas who had seen little of the world before joining the Army. That was before he landed on Omaha Beach, before his brother, Roland, was killed in battle, before he spearheaded an attack near Goville, France, and before he repeatedly led his men against heavily defended enemy strong points.
Much time has passed, and now, Ehlers said, he spends a good deal of time at events associated with the medal. "The older you get, the more it seems there are," he said of the events.
Not that Ehlers, 83, is unappreciative of the honors. He and others say the medal comes with certain obligations.
"When I have the medal on, I take the responsibilities that go with it very seriously," said Harvey "Barney" Barnum Jr., an assistant secretary of the Navy who received his medal for service in Vietnam. He said that the medal must be "worn with dignity" and that he and the other recipients represent all who have served in the U.S. armed forces.
Jerry Dumont, the co-founder of the event at Lansdowne and the hotel's manager, said he met a medal recipient about five years ago. That recipient later invited him to a Medal of Honor Society convention, where he met about 50 honorees. It was the convention that led Dumont to think about doing something to honor them. "I was so impressed with the stories of their heroism that I wanted to show my gratitude for their service to America," he said.
Recipients of the medal are relatively rare today. Of the 130 living recipients, 49 served in World War II, and their ranks are dwindling. The majority of the others served in Vietnam. Only one serviceman, a Marine from Scio, N.Y., has been nominated for the medal for his actions in the Iraq war.
Recipients are rare for a reason. The honor of a medal is not given out lightly, and a service member must demonstrate considerable courage before receiving one.
Barnum, who lives in Reston, was in Vietnam's Quang Tin Province when his Marine unit came under fire. After finding the rifle company commander mortally wounded and the radio operator killed, Barnum gave aid to the dying commander, removed the radio from the dead operator and assumed command of the rifle company, rallying his men.
The actions of Williams, 80, were no less remarkable. While serving with the 21st Marines in Iwo Jima, he fought desperately for four hours under enemy small-arms fire. He repeatedly returned to his own lines to prepare demolition charges and obtain other weaponry.
Williams, who was relaxing in a pavilion at Lansdowne on Monday before the golf awards ceremony, said that although events such as the tournament were enjoyable, they were mostly for pleasure. They are also for a cause, as the tournament and banquet raised $105,000 for the Medal of Honor Society.
But Williams placed a higher priority on educating young people about freedom and patriotism.
He said he tells young people not to take their freedom for granted. He tells them about "what it has taken to get us to where we are and [that] the responsibility from this point on is going to be theirs."
"They are inheriting that freedom from someone else who died to give it to them," Williams said.
Williams, who lives in Ona, W.Va., said students appreciate what he has to say. He often receives letters thanking him and telling him his speech was the best they had ever heard.