Today is Veterans Day, when every American should be grateful for the sacrifices of all of those who have served in the military. What better way to appreciate the true meaning of their service than to recall those whose service was so extraordinary — so conspicuous for its courage, gallantry, and selflessness — that they received the Congressional Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military award?
The Congressional Medal of Honor was established in 1862, during the early days of the Civil War. Its first recipient was Private Jacob Parrott, who penetrated deep into Confederate territory to destroy railroad tracks and seize a train. The Civil War also saw the first award of the Medal of Honor to an African-American — Sergeant William Carney of the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry, who participated in the assault on Fort Wagner, planted the flag on the parapet, and kept the flag from touching the ground despite twice being severely wounded.
The only award of the Medal of Honor to a woman, Dr. Mary Walker, also occurred during the Civil War. Dr. Walker received the Medal for her service throughout the Civil War, which included caring for the wounded at the battles of Bull Run, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Atlanta, and then spending four months as a prisoner of war after being captured.
In the 150 years since its establishment, the Congressional Medal of Honor has been awarded to 3,463 people, of whom 78 are still living. The most recent recipient is Captain William D. Swenson, who received his Medal on October 15, 2013 for his actions in Afghanistan in 2009. Captain Swenson led his men under fire during a six-hour firefight against enemy forces who surrounded them on three sides, refused to surrender, provided medical aid to a wounded fellow soldier, and then twice exposed himself to heavy enemy fire to rescue wounded soldiers and recover fallen soldiers.
The Congressional Medal of Honor is awarded to those who service has been extraordinary, but the qualities of courage, self-sacrifice, and service that it commemorates are shared by all of the men and women who serve honorably in our armed forces. On this Veterans Day, a heartfelt thank you to all of our veterans and active duty personnel!