Former Navy Lt. James E. Zumwalt’s great-grandfather was awarded the Bronze Star during World War II for his actions as an Army doctor when Nazi labor camps were being liberated. His grandfather, one of the Navy’s most revered admirals, received the medal after serving aboard a destroyer during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Pacific. His uncle was awarded it for his actions as a Navy swift-boat commander in Vietnam.
Now, James E. Zumwalt is the fourth generation of his family to receive the Bronze Star. At a ceremony in Washington on Monday, Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) presented Zumwalt with the medal for “exceptionally meritorious service” in Iraq in 2010 with a Navy explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team.
For Zumwalt, the citation is a tribute to his fellow EOD team members and classmates. “To be honest, it was a huge honor, but I was uncomfortable,” he said Tuesday. “But thinking about it, I feel like I’m receiving it for the guys who couldn’t be there.”
Zumwalt, who left the service last year and now works for a defense contractor, served two tours in Iraq with EOD teams that were routinely exposed to sniper fire and deadly explosives.
“I know his uncle, grandfather and great-grandfather must have been watching over him,” said Zumwalt’s father, retired Marine Lt. Col. James G. Zumwalt, who served in Vietnam and during the first Gulf War. “Both times when he was on tour, I don’t think I ever prayed as hard as I did.”
As chief of naval operations beginning in 1970, James E. Zumwalt’s grandfather, Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., was known as a reformer who championed equality for women and minorities. Earlier, as commander of American naval river patrols in Vietnam, he had ordered the use of the herbicide Agent Orange to defoliate river banks and reduce U.S. casualties. Zumwalt had been assured that the chemical would not harm people.
His son, Navy Lt. Elmo R. Zumwalt III, commanded a patrol boat on the Ca Mau Peninsula in Vietnam and was later found to have cancer, an illness the family blamed on exposure to Agent Orange, which was found to have been contaminated with dioxin, a carcinogen. He died in 1988.
A few months before his death in 2000, Adm. Zumwalt wrote a letter to his grandson observing that the biggest threats facing his generation would be rogue nations and terrorists, and suggesting that in choosing his life’s path, his grandson consider doing “something bigger than yourself,” according to James E. Zumwalt.
In 2008, James G. Zumwalt wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post in which he described the feelings of a father seeing his son depart for Iraq.
“Having lost a grandfather, father and brother, I had come to believe all my heroes were gone,” he wrote. “But I was wrong. . . . In bidding my son farewell as he goes off to war, I realized I have been blessed with yet another hero.”