Touched by honor

There is a statue in Piqua, Ohio of William H. Pitsenbarger, a Medal of Honor recipient. The statute is strategically placed in the entry to Pitsenbarger Park; the park that bears his name that many of us remember as Eisenhower Park. Throughout the day the statue casts shadows and occasionally the shadow touches a bench that sits near-by.

In 1980 I was senior at Piqua High School and was the feature editor for Smoke Signals, the high school paper that was printed weekly in the Piqua Daily Call. The faculty advisor, Mrs. Meg Ulmes, gave me an assignment to write a story about the UU.S. Flag that would be hung in the new Garbry Gym. It had great significance as the flag draped the coffin of a Vietnam Veteran who was killed in action and his parents wanted to offer the flag in his memory. At the time, William Pitsenbarger had been the first enlisted recipient of the Air Force Cross, which was the highest medal in the Air Force, but had not yet been awarded the Medal of Honor.

As I sat with Irene and William Pitsenbarger as a young and naïve senior, for what I remember as over two hours, I became completely spellbound by the story. While the minute details of the story I have forgotten, the most memorable are as vivid as the article I wrote over almost 40 years ago. Who gives up their day off so they can be shot at? Who braves gunfire and cascades down a wire basket from a helicopter onto an actual battlefield? Who stays at the place of such despair and damage under gunfire when he was given the ability to leave? A man of honor, someone who places others above and beyond self.

Greater love hath no man, than he lay down his life for a friend. We hear the story, we can listen to the details, but how many can truly grasp what happened to him that fateful day? The details that should always be remembered are that he volunteered to ride down the hoist to assist in the recovery of nine casualties as well as aid the wounded. Secondly, when the helicopters were taking hostile fire and had to evacuate, he refused to leave so that he could continue providing medical care. Finally, after aiding numerous soldiers, his life was taken in the battle. He took his last breath holding fast to the pararescue creed, “These things I do, that others may live.”

Shortly after high school I entered the Air Force in 1983, having taken the ASVAB test and earned an administrative position in the finance field. While I was currently serving in the Air Force on active duty when Desert Storm occurred, I have never served in war. In fact, the greatest hardship I suffered during my eight years of service was lying on the frozen tundra of North Dakota on a runway in the middle of the night. My mobility skill during war would be to load planes, trucks etc. It was during an exercise that a superior had given security police the wrong password and we were seen as a severe threat to national security. It was sub-zero temperatures and the heat of a Vietnam jungle would have felt good after those numerous minutes spread eagle on the ground with guns pointed at us.

In 2012, Rhodes State College in Lima advertised for a veterans recruiter representative at the institution. I applied and after three interviews was accepted for the position. During my tenure there, I was asked, why are there so many issues with returning soldiers and why do so many seem to suffer physical damage to include prosthetics. My answer was: because they are coming home alive; due to increased technology, better body armour, etc. Their survival sometimes comes at a high physical and mental cost, but they still come home alive. PTSD is one of the largest injuries of war. It’s hard for many of us to comprehend the magnitude that war can deal on a person’s soul. Ask a veteran who has served in war time; you may be changed in the moments when you listen to their stories.

I recently attended my niece’s last volleyball game as a senior at Piqua High School and I came face-to- face with the past and William Pitsenbarger’s flag. After the National Anthem was sung, I told my wife that the flag was from William Pitsenbarger’s parents. My wife asked me why did they place it here and I said, as I choked back the tears, because they wanted to place it somewhere permanent where it would be protected. They could have selfishly kept it, but given William Pitsenbarger’s life and how he lived, it should not come as a surprise that the parents who reared him, willingly and without reservation gave the flag to Piqua High School. He was their only child. I know the movie about his experience in Vietnam and how he was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor is being shown now. I’m not sure I am prepared to watch it yet. I want to, but I just know that it will be difficult knowing that he gave his all.

The shadow of William Pitsenbarger’s statue touches a bench that bears my name. The bench was a gift from my parents, Sue and Don Smith, in recognition of my eight years of active duty service in the United States Air Force. I don’t believe that anyone enters the service with the thought that their principle motive is to be recognized and I am truly humbled by the gift. My service record pales in comparison to his and while sitting quietly on the bench one afternoon, the overwhelming desire to tell his story one more time came to me. Just as the shadow touches the bench, so too was I touched and moved by the story of William H. Pitsenbarger, a Medal of Honor recipient who gave the last full measure. It is my humble hope and prayer, that we, as grateful Americans always pay honor to those who serve and defend the freedom of our great nation.