Right Opinion

America's Medal of Honor Small Town

Guest Commentary · Aug. 26, 2019

By John White

March 25 is National Medal of Honor Day. This annual holiday, designated by Congress, is dedicated to Medal of Honor recipients. But in my home town of Cheshire, Connecticut, every day is Medal of Honor Day.

Cheshire is unique among small towns of America because we have had two residents who received the Medal of Honor. Although Cheshire has a population of fewer than 30,000, no other small town of the thousands in America can make that claim. Consequently, there is a high level of patriotic concern for our town’s two Medal of Honor recipients and what the medal stands for.

Public recognition of that begins with our Medal of Honor Plaza, a 50-foot star made from inlaid bricks inscribed with veterans’ names. A black marble monument in the center of the star, designed by a local citizen, has the names of the two residents who received the medal: Sgt. Eri Woodbury for his valiant encounter with Confederate forces at the Battle of Cedar Creek in 1864, and 1st Lt. Harvey Barnum for his 1965 battle action in Ky Phu, Vietnam.

An exhibit case in our public library houses an actual Medal of Honor (on permanent loan from the Department of Defense) and a photo display about Barnum and Woodbury. Woodbury’s Medal of Honor is on display in our Historical Society building. Their names are also prominently displayed at the Veterans Memorial Plaza in front of Town Hall. The portion of the main road through Cheshire’s center was recently named the “Medal of Honor Memorial Highway” by the state.

Our guest of honor — what more appropriate term could there be? — at the highway naming ceremony was Barnum, now a retired Marine colonel. (After retirement he became Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Reserve Affairs — a position he held for eight years.) The day before, he spoke to Cheshire High School students about the medal and its meaning. So the occasion was educational and patriotic. A video of it was shown on the local public-access channel, extending the occasion and the message to a still larger audience.

What message? Honor is a difficult concept to define. Just look at the dictionary and you’ll find nearly a dozen related meanings for honor. But all of them point to a condition of the highest personal integrity and social esteem. The Scout BSA and Girl Scout oaths begin “On my honor” and then go on to name specific virtues and character traits that are fundamental to the development of good citizenship in the family, the community, the nation, and the world. We address judges as “Your Honor.” Likewise, we refer to elected officials as “The Honorable…”

The Congressional Medal of Honor Society says the medal stands for the core values of courage, sacrifice, integrity, and patriotism. They are values that helped to build our nation. That should be taught to our young people. It is in keeping with what the founders of America said very clearly: Our form of government — a republic — and our form of society — a democracy — require a virtuous people to preserve it. Our society is the seedbed from which our government officials are selected. Without virtue in our citizens, our democratic republic will deteriorate and perish because there will be no personal and national honor. That means there will be no honesty because honesty arises from a sense of honor.

To readers I ask: Are you teaching and demonstrating honor in your lives? Are your children learning it from you? Youth is 20% of the population but 100% of the future, so if they don’t understand and embrace the meaning of honor, it won’t be their fault. It will be our fault, meaning us adults, parents, teachers, community leaders, and other public figures, including veterans, who fail to demonstrate courage, sacrifice, integrity, and patriotism. And America will suffer for that. You’ve heard it said that freedom is not free. Our freedom must be defended by each generation. If today’s younger generation doesn’t learn honor and its core values from the older generations, we will lose our freedom and with it all the goodness and greatness that America has offered its citizens over the centuries.

Let the word honor show forth in our lives every day. As the Marine Corps hymn says, “Keep our honor clean.” That’s the message from America’s Medal of Honor small town.

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