When my brother and I were growing up and we bragged about some perceived accomplishment, my father used to tease us. "What do you want," he liked to grumble, "a Medal of Honor?"
He found this funnier than we did, of course. As children we couldn't hope to qualify for the Medal of Honor -- America's highest award for wartime acts of valor. We weren't war heroes and, since we didn't have jobs, we couldn't "go above and beyond the call of duty" as the award requires. Even adults couldn't qualify for it unless they were in the military.
But in 2008 the Congressional Medal of Honor Society chose to broaden the spirit and reach of this prestigious award by establishing the Citizen Honors program.
"Every day in this country, ordinary Americans become extraordinary," says Tom Wilkerson, CEO and president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation, which supports the Society. "It can happen in a single instance of bravery, or through a lifetime of service to others. These heroes symbolize the spirit of America and the Medal of Honor recipients want to find them and recognize them in the same way that they were recognized."
Barney Barnum, 73, is one of only 77 surviving recipients of the Medal of Honor, America's highest award for wartime acts of valor. He was honored for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty during a 1965 gun battle in Vietnam. He assumed command of his rifle company after his commanding officer was killed and then successfully led their attack on enemy positions. In 2008 he and the other Society members voted to create this civilian equivalent of their award.
"This is a chance to honor Americans who have gone above and beyond in the civilian world, who, in a crisis situation, do the right thing at the right time for the right reasons," says Barney, who helps bestow Citizen Honors medals each year. "People like this are what makes America great so we've got to stop and honor them and think about them. They have stepped forward and made us proud."
The Citizen Honors celebrate three hometown heroes each year from a pool of candidates nominated by friends, coworkers, families and communities. The Society is looking for candidates from every state in the United States, and they can be nominated online at http://cmohfoundation.org/.
Recipients of the Citizen Honors award are brought to Washington each year for National Medal of Honor Day, Mar. 25, named by Congress after the first presentation of the award to six Union Army volunteers back in 1863. The Citizen Honors recipients receive their medals from one of the 77 surviving Medal of Honor recipients at The Tomb of the Unknowns, perhaps America's greatest tribute to anonymous heroism.
In 2012 the Citizen Honors awards were expanded to include Rachel D'Avino, Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach and Victoria Soto, the six Sandy Hook Elementary School staff members who sacrificed their lives protecting students in the December 2011 school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. But the awards also celebrate living heroes like Brandon Wemhoff, 31, who in 2011 tackled an armed and masked robber at a Nebraska pharmacy and held him down until police arrived.
"To be given a compliment like this is a wonderful thing," Brandon says of his award. "It has helped me to feel like I'm succeeding at life, and at a young age. But it also makes me more aware of making sure that I'm continuing to do the right thing -- that I'm treating people the way I'd like them to treat me and my family."
Even so, Brandon says, he doesn't tell too many people about his award.
"I'll talk about it if it comes up in conversation but I won't bring it up," he says. "Now, my Mom, she thinks it's the best thing in the world and she tells everybody. So anytime I go home I have to go through the story a million times. But you know how moms are, they get proud."
"Our hope is that through the example of hometown heroes we can inspire Americans across the country to show that they, too, have courage, selflessness, sacrifice and patriotism," Wilkerson said.
I encourage each and every person to nominate your personal hometown hero on the Foundation website at http://cmohfoundation.org/. Doing so not only gives credit where credit is due, but inspires others as well!