The ceremonial guns boomed and the solemn members of the U.S. Army Band carried in the floral wreath, a white ribbon reading “Medal of Honor Society” streaming alongside the red-white-and-blue ribbons. They laid the wreath in front of Arlington Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknowns, honoring those who have died protecting the United States in foreign conflicts — including more than 3,000 whose valor in battle earned them the nation’s most distinguished military recognition, the Medal of Honor.
And then, following the wreath, in walked a small group of men with shining medals hanging on blue ribbons around their necks — some of the small group of just 72 people still living who have earned the Medal of Honor themselves.
Monday’s wreath-laying marked the end of a three-day visit to Washington by more than two dozen recipients of the Medal of Honor, for an annual event recognizing their bravery.
For many of the veterans, the trip began in New York, where they were toasted at a banquet and at the New York Stock Exchange last week before being escorted with great fanfare to John F. Kennedy International Airport on Saturday. There, they boarded a plane for Washington. And when they landed 40 minutes later at Reagan National Airport, a crowd of hundreds had gathered to greet them.
A Brownie troop waved flags while munching on doughnuts. High schoolers held up homemade posters. Children shyly sought to shake the veterans’ hands as they got off the plane. A six-piece band played swing music and military marches, giving Terminal C a party atmosphere.
“You never get used to it,” said Drew Dix, the president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. “All these people genuinely thanking you for coming, genuinely thanking you for what we did. … They don’t know what I did. It’s the symbol. It’s what this medal represents.”
Dix was awarded the Medal of Honor 50 years ago for heroism during the Vietnam War. In the course of two days, he rescued 14 civilians who were trapped in buildings under heavy fire. Since then, he has grown close to other men who have received the same mark of distinction.
“It’s like a family. You’re born into this — in my case, in 1969. It’s just like family,” said Dix, who came from New Mexico for the event. “We have a mutual respect, all of us. It’s very unique.”
All 72 living Medal of Honor recipients, from World War II through the Korean and Vietnam wars to the 21st-century conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, are invited to Washington annually for March 25′s National Medal of Honor Day. American Airlines pays for their charter flight and some other events during the weekend.
Many of them, like Dix, have attended at least a dozen times. This year is especially poignant for him. On Tuesday, he said, he’ll be at the burial service for Joe Jackson, who was awarded the Medal of Honor alongside him in 1969.
For Ty Carter, who was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2013 for actions in Afghanistan that will soon be the subject of the movie “The Outpost,” Saturday was his first Medal of Honor flight. Stepping off the plane, along with six fellow Afghanistan veterans, 15 Vietnam veterans and one World War II veteran, was a striking experience.
“It was so nice, it was almost overwhelming,” he said. “It’s always uncomfortable when people are so appreciative and want to shake your hand. It’s overwhelming, as though you don’t really deserve this attention. You keep moving until you get to your ride. It gets emotional. It gets uncomfortable, but in a good way.”
The crowd at the gate included large groups from Boeing and from Paul VI Catholic High School, as well as people who had some time to pass before their flights, joining the commotion once they heard the announcement that “heroes among heroes” would be landing in five minutes at Gate 38.
Izzy, 8, practiced with her Brownie troop for the veterans’ arrival: “Hi! Thank you for protecting our country!”
“They risked their lives. Some of their friends died protecting us,” she said.
Roger Whitworth leads a six-piece band that normally plays at weddings and office parties. But many weekends a year, he and the band volunteer to greet an “honor flight” at the airport — typically a plane full of World War II and Korean War veterans enjoying a free trip to see the memorials dedicated to the wars they fought in. More rarely, it’s a Medal of Honor plane like this.
Whitworth, a veteran himself, estimates he has played at more than 100 of these welcome ceremonies — so many that he’s completely accustomed to getting his drum and tuba wanded down when he goes through airport security to reach the gate. “It’s very meaningful. We’re honoring the greatest generation,” he said, before directing the band to strike up “Uptown Funk.”
For Cole Morgan, 17, this was his first honor-flight welcome. His father retired from the military last year, so it rang a bell.
“When I was younger, I used to welcome home all my friends’ dads,” he said. “I guess old habits die hard. I’m still here.”
He clutched his poster and lined up to welcome the arriving plane, along with peers and parents from the Virginia home-school association he belongs to. Flags from every conflict hung above a monitor announcing a delayed flight to Kansas City. The color guard raised its flags higher than the sign pointing toward Baggage Claim. The oldest veterans stepped first off the plane, and the crowd cried out and waved flags. Morgan was awed by the weight of the moment.
“I can’t believe I missed this last year!” he said. He’ll be back.