Feature
Valor Always Welcome
Annual tribute to Medal of Honor recipients puts Gainesville on the map as ‘Most Patriotic Small Town in America’

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    Duane E. Dewey, waves during the 2013 parade in downtown Gainesville. In 1952, Dewey was a gunner near Panmunjom, Korea, already receiving medical attention for wounds, when he smothered a grenade to protect his fellow Marines.
    IMAGE: Dave Shafer
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    Duane E. Dewey, waves during the 2013 parade in downtown Gainesville. In 1952, Dewey was a gunner near Panmunjom, Korea, already receiving medical attention for wounds, when he smothered a grenade to protect his fellow Marines.
    IMAGE: Dave Shafer
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    Walter ‘Joe’ Marm checks out one of the Huey helicopters, ubiquitous in the Vietnam War, on display at the airport in Gainesville. Marm, a second lieutenant in the Army, earned the Medal of Honor in 1965 in Vietnam when he exposed himself to intense enemy fire as he led his platoon through an assault.
    IMAGE: Dave Shafer
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    Army Staff Sgt. Clinton L. Romesha, 32, orchestrated the fight against a daylong attack by Taliban forces that greatly outnumbered his own and coordinated the recovery of injured soldiers in Afghanistan in 2009.
    IMAGE: Dave Shafer
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    John J. McGinty shakes hands with a fellow Marine. McGinty, a staff sergeant who led his platoon while badly wounded in a four-hour battle in Vietnam in 1966, died January 17 at his home in South Carolina. He was 73.
    IMAGE: Dave Shafer
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    Duane E. Dewey was the first person to receive the Medal of Honor from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, according to the Marine Corps website. Eisenhower remarked to Dewey, who threw himself on a grenade before it exploded, ‘You must have a body of steel.’
    IMAGE: Dave Shafer
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    Harold ‘Hal’ Fritz tells students at Gainesville High School, ‘In just two seconds, you and only you can make these decisions when the chips are down to be great in combat and in everyday life.’ Fritz was an Army first lieutenant in Vietnam, leading a seven-vehicle armored column when it was ambushed. Despite being seriously wounded, he continued fighting and directing his men, wielding at various times a machine gun, pistol and bayonet. He refused medical treatment until all the others had been treated and evacuated.
    IMAGE: Dave Shafer
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    James A. Taylor explains the symbolism of his medal to students at Robert E. Lee Intermediate School. Taylor, a first lieutenant in the Army, three times removed wounded comrades from vehicles that were in danger of exploding after they were hit by enemy fire in Vietnam in 1967. Taylor explains he’s just a caretaker of the Medal of Honor for comrades who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
    IMAGE: Dave Shafer
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    Bruce P. Crandall, a retired Army major, and service dog Huey await the start of the parade. Crandall completed 22 flights in an unarmed helicopter, most under intense enemy fire, to evacuate some 70 wounded comrades during a search-and-destroy mission in Vietnam on November 14, 1965.
    IMAGE: Dave Shafer
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    Medal of Honor recipients remember their comrades. Each cross represents a Medal of Honor recipient who has died since the Medal of Honor Host City Program began in Gainesville in 2001. Students at Robert E. Lee Intermediate School place the crosses for the ceremony.
    IMAGE: Dave Shafer
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    Don ‘Doc’ Ballard, seated, looks on as Robert J. Modrzejewski talks to a class at Robert E. Lee Intermediate School. Ballard, a hospital corpsman in Vietnam in 1968, was treating and evacuating casualties when a grenade landed near an injured Marine. Ballard threw himself on it to save his comrades. When it failed to detonate, he continued treating injuries. Modrzejewski, a Marine captain, commanded about 130 outnumbered men as they fought off an attack for three days in a Vietnamese jungle in 1966.
    IMAGE: Dave Shafer

Texas has a surplus of towns identifiable by a singular, defining reputation. Dublin is famous for Dr Pepper. Brenham is renowned for Blue Bell Ice Cream. Gainesville is known for patriotism.

Every April, Gainesville hosts recipients of the Medal of Honor, America’s most prestigious decoration for valor on the battlefield. This community just south of the Red River pays round-trip airfare for any Medal of Honor recipient who wishes to make the four-day visit. City representatives pick them up at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and take them to town in a public safety vehicle motorcade, escorted by hundreds of Patriot Guard motorcyclists. Gainesville hosts honorees in area hotels and allots them cash stipends for general expenses.

The Medal of Honor Host City Program features a casual dinner, a formal banquet and a citywide parade. In addition, the honorees rub shoulders with Gainesville residents, make appearances at schools and attend other social events to discuss their military service and what the award has meant for them and their families. First-time honorees are also memorialized by tree plantings along Gainesville’s Home Grown Hero Walking Trail.

“It’s a grassroots effort,” says Jenny Richardson, receptionist at the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce. “From newborns to folks in their 90s, everybody is involved. When it first started, no one knew how far it would go or how big it would get. Today, anybody who wants to be involved can, whether it’s just standing at the parade waving a flag or giving a ride to one of the events to someone who couldn’t get there on their own.”

Don Pettigrew founded the Medal of Honor Host City Program in 2001 with wife Lynnette. He says the event simply sprang up out of necessity.

Pettigrew, who served with the Marines in Vietnam, had gotten into the habit of attending Iwo Jima reunions in Wichita Falls in the late 1990s and had met all but two of the living Medal of Honor recipients of that World War II battle. When he asked why the two had never made it to the reunions, he was told that neither they nor the event planners could afford the travel expenses.

“I thought someone ought to do something about it,” Pettigrew says. He relayed the disappointing circumstances to then-Gainesville Mayor Kenneth Kaden, who suggested that Pettigrew be that someone.

“The mayor said we could do it in Gainesville,” adds Pettigrew, who has been a member of Cooke County Electric Cooperative for 30 years. “He tasked me with putting together a board and coming up with some guidelines. And that’s how it all started.”

The Medal of Honor was created in 1861 to memorialize American servicemen and women who “conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk” of their lives comport themselves “above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States.” Over those 153 years, American presidents—in the name of Congress—have awarded 3,463 Medals of Honor to the nation’s most courageous soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guard personnel, including 76 Texans. When Gainesville’s Medal of Honor program began in 2001, there were 150 living recipients. Today there are only 76. Forty recipients have participated in Gainesville’s program.

In July 2012, travel and map publisher Rand McNally and USA Today named Gainesville the “Most Patriotic Small Town in America” as part of its Best of the Road promotion. It came as no surprise to former Army Capt. Harold “Hal” Fritz, a 2013 Gainesville honoree and president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, based in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.

“The whole essence of Gainesville’s Medal of Honor program is to show that the community and the citizens appreciate what honorees have done to preserve our freedoms,” says Fritz, a 1971 Medal of Honor recipient who lives in Peoria, Illinois. “The people of Gainesville have no hidden agenda,” Fritz adds, “and they’re not in it for the limelight. Their only goal is to let us know they appreciate our service.”

Fritz received the Medal of Honor for leading his vastly outnumbered platoon though an intense firefight in the Binh Long Province of South Vietnam on January 11, 1969. When his armored column encountered crossfire during an ambush, Fritz, then a first lieutenant, was seriously wounded. Realizing that his platoon was in danger of being overrun, Fritz climbed atop his burning vehicle and shouted orders, establishing a defensive perimeter for his remaining comrades. Under heavy fire from opposing gunners, he ran from position to position, repositioning his men, assisting the wounded, distributing ammunition and providing encouragement. He manned a machine gun to break the assault and then led another counterattack carrying only a pistol and bayonet.

Don “Doc” Ballard, a former Navy hospital corpsman second class and 1970 Medal of Honor recipient, attends Gainesville’s festivities every year. His favorite aspect is visiting with the kids, but his annual presence also stems from a profound sense of responsibility.

On May 16, 1968, Ballard ran across a fiery battlefield in the Quang Tri Province of South Vietnam to tend to a wounded comrade. He then instructed four Marines to move the wounded soldier to safety when an enemy soldier approached, threw a grenade and began shooting. Ballard shouted at the Marines to take cover then threw himself on the grenade. When it failed to detonate, Ballard got up and began helping other wounded Marines, saving at least a dozen lives.

Ballard, who lives in Kansas City, Missouri, says he doesn’t attend Gainesville’s Medal of Honor events for the ones he saved or the ones who survived the war. “When I’m here, I wear the medal for the guys that paid the ultimate price,” says Ballard, who retired from the Kansas National Guard as a colonel. “I’m sure any of them would change places with me in a minute. I wear the medal for them because I know they would do the same for me.”

For Fritz and Ballard, the Texas city’s Medal of Honor program celebrates everything that’s right with America. “It’s about community and respect,” says Fritz. “The citizens of Gainesville make you feel like you’re part of the family.”

Hosting the veterans has changed the folks in Gainesville, too. “It’s made each of us evaluate our own sense of patriotism,” Richardson says. “It’s made us realize that patriotism is not generational. It’s a process, an everyday process of being thankful for those who have served and those who will serve.”

Ballard says he feels the celebration sends a great message. “We need to impart our values to our kids,” he says. “The whole program is dedicated to real heroes—not guys who hit home runs or make the tough shots on a basketball court—but guys that really laid it on the line, for their country and for the guy next to them.”

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E.R. Bills of Aledo has written ‘Texas Obscurities: Stories of the Peculiar, Exceptional and Nefarious’ (History Press, 2013).

The Medal of Honor Host City Program in 2014

April 9: City officials and the Patriot Guard meet honorees at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and take them to Gainesville via motorcade


April 10: Fish fry (ticketed event open to the public)


April 11: Dedication of newly planted red oak trees at the Home Grown Hero Walking Trail; banquet (reservations only)


April 12: Parade


Info: (940) 665-2831, medalofhonorhostcity.com

TAGS: Events, Veterans


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