Happy 235th Birthday to America! I hope all of you enjoyed a happy 4th of July full of delicious food, the company of loyal friends and your family. But not everybody was able to spend the holiday with those they love. Thousands of men and women serving our country are stationed far away from home, fighting against terrorism and enemies of the freedom we hold so dear.
Each week when I turn on the race, I am proud of the way NASCAR celebrates our country and honors those that serve in the military. Cameras often pan over uniformed individuals during the presentation of the flag and the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner. It’s a small thank you for their service. Very small, when all is considered.
So when Daytona International Speedway once again honored four Congressional Medal of Honor recipients and the cameras showed us their aged faces for a few seconds, I felt it behooves all of us to think on their sacrifices a bit longer than a wide shot between the opening ceremonies and “Gentlemen, start your engines!”
Sure, the four recipients were treated by DIS over the weekend to VIP access, a special luncheon and even participated in an autograph session in the FanZone. But considering the sacrifice they give for our country, I can’t help but feel a little more recognition of these heroes should have been made by TNT. So, in an effort to correct that lack of publicity the following is a brief description of the actions that earned Staff Sergeant Jon R. Cavaiani, Captain Harold A. Fritz, Staff Sergeant Don J. Jenkins and Lieutenant Leo K. Thorsness the highest award for valor for those serving in our armed forces.
Note that all of the men below received the CMOH while serving in the Vietnam War.
Staff Sergeant Cavaiani earned his medal for actions on June 4-5, 1971. As platoon leader, assigned to lead security for a radio relay station situated behind enemy lines, Cavaiani repeatedly placed himself in the line of fire when the station came under attack on June 4. He spent the day running from one position to another, providing direction to his men, supplies and shoring up morale as the neverending barrage of enemy shelling continued. Each time he left the protection of one emplacement, he exposed himself to small arms fire, grenades and automatic machine gun fire.
All the while, he returned heavy fire from a variety of weapons he would pick up as he toured his locale. When the station was ordered to evacuate, Cavaiani remained on the ground providing cover fire, fighting hard until an increase in enemy fire demanded the evacuation be suspended until the following day.
Unfortunately, heavy ground fog in the morning prevented the choppers from returning and the small force was left to stand against a concerted attack. With two ranks of the enemy marching on their position, Cavaiani picked up a machine gun, stood up and blanketed the advancing force with automatic fire, providing a means of escape for most of the remaining platoon.
While serving as platoon leader, Captain Harold A. Fritz suffered severe wounds when his armored column came under fire in the Binh Long Province on Jan. 11, 1969. Aware the column was caught in a crossfire and in danger of being overrun, Fritz ran from vehicle to vehicle, repositioning his men and preparing to provide a more effective defense in their vulnerable position, all the while ignoring his own wounds. Utilizing any and all weapons that came to hand, Fritz led the platoon in fending off the enemy attack. When backup forces arrived, he again exposed himself to enemy fire in order to effectively deploy the troops and drive off the enemy.
During a reconnaissance mission in the Kien Phong Province on Jan. 6, 1969, Staff Sergeant Don J. Jenkins‘s unit became pinned down under persistent enemy fire. Placing himself in a vulnerable position, Jenkins used first a machine gun, then an anti-tank weapon and finally a grenade launcher to push back the enemy. During this exchange, he was seriously wounded by shrapnel. Undaunted, Jenkins returned three more times despite his injuries to pull other wounded men to safety.
Lieutenant Leo K. Thorsness piloted an F-105 over Vietnam on April 19, 1967 on a mission to destroy a surface-to-air missile site. After completing his initial mission, he dropped his bombs on a second SAM position. During the attack, Thorsness’ wingman went down, causing the two crewmen to parachute into enemy territory. Thorsness stayed to report their position, fighting off an attacking MIG as a way to come to their aid.
Beginning to run low on fuel, he left the area, only to return when he heard a report that the choppers trying to extricate the crewmen were under attack from more MIGs and ground fire. He struck one of the four attacking enemy fighters and drove the rest off. Now, seriously low on fuel, he headed to the closest fueling tanker. However, a radio transmission from another F-105 indicated they were dangerously low on fuel. Thorsness directed the tanker’s crew to divert to the second F-105. He aimed his jet toward the closest airfield, throttled back to idle and glided to a landing on the runway as night closed in.
All tales of bravery, self-sacrifice and a commitment to those who stand with them in a fight, the recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor demonstrated the very best in all of us at a time when they were most needed. In these uncertain times, there are soldiers of a new generation who must make these kinds of decisions, too.
As the U.S. continues at war, the roster for the CMOH continues to grow each day; we are just rarely told the stories, as many times we’d rather pretend we live in a world far more innocent than it is. There were no Hollywood actors, timed explosions or even a happy ever after for the experiences listed above; in fact, two of the men were captured, suffering as POWs.
Yes, we just celebrated Independence Day. But we should always remember that freedom was not something that America was given. We fought for it. And the men and women who serve our country in the Armed Forces even now continue to fight, putting their lives on the line when circumstances demand it, preserving our freedom still.
I thank them, the veterans of wars past and present and the active duty personnel. Thank you for everything you do for me.
Editor’s Note: Should you want to know more about the Congressional Medal of Honor and its growing list of recipients, please visit The Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
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