Convention of heroes shaping up
Army veteran John Baker, a "tunnel rat" during the Vietnam War, remembers his first gathering of fellow Medal of Honor recipients nearly 30 years ago.
It was an amazing assembly of men: more than 350 heroes from a century of wars who went above and beyond at a moment when terror and uncertainty reigned around them.
But today, there are just 95 living members of America's most-select military fraternity left. And that's what makes next year's convention so important.
Officials gathered at The Citadel on Friday to begin the one-year countdown until Charleston hosts the 2010 national convention of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
It means prestige for the Lowcountry and an opportunity for these rare men to tell their stories in area schools and with other military men. And it could be the last time the event is held here.
Competition from other cities to land the convention, and the rate that these men are disappearing -- their average age is 78 -- means the likelihood of assembling so many men of valor in one place locally again is fading.
Retired Marine Maj. Gen. James Livingston, of Mount Pleasant, who also wears the medal, said the dwindling ranks of members is why the pressure is on Charleston to roll out the red carpet next year. "I know this city and this state is committed to that end," he said Friday.
Charleston already has a huge connection to the medal. The Congressional Medal of Honor Museum is housed onboard the aircraft carrier Yorktown at Patriots Point. The conventions are where all the recipients, their widows and families gather under one roof to draw media attention and humbly deflect attention from them back toward the men they served with and the lives they saw lost in combat.
"We're just the tip of the iceberg of that story," said Livingston, who as a Marine captain on May 2, 1968, led his men against enemy emplacements in Vietnam. He was wounded a third time and unable to walk but deployed his men and supervised the evacuation of casualties. Only when assured of the safety of his men did he allow himself to be evacuated.
Surprisingly, the demands on medal recipients seem to never stop even decades after last seeing action. Baker, a retired master sergeant who lives in Columbia, said he's on the road many months a year talking to schoolchildren and also to military personnel at VA hospitals.
In the high schools, "we teach them there are more heroes than just football players and basketball players," he said.
Baker, whose duties included entering tunnels searching for the enemy, was given the medal for action in Vietnam on Nov. 5, 1966. After a comrade was mortally wounded, then Pfc. Baker spotted and killed four Viet Cong snipers and evacuated the fallen soldier.He then returned to the battle scene to lead repeated assaults, killing several more Viet Cong and destroying enemy bunkers.
The Medal of Honor is the nation's highest military award. More than 3,400 have been awarded, about 60 percent posthumously.
The 2010 convention, which will be held Sept. 29 through Oct. 3 at sites throughout the Lowcountry, is co-sponsored by The Citadel and the South Carolina State Guard. The "Beyond Valor" committee is seeking sponsors for its events in the fall of 2010. A call for volunteers will be issued in the near future.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551, or email@example.com.