Military veterans honor civilian heroes as part of National Medal of Honor Day

Eric Pfeiffer
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Recipeints of the Citizens Honors Ceremony near Washington, DC on March 25, 2014 (Brendan Kownacki)

Each year, the U.S. federal government and military recognizes the most outstanding veterans on National Medal of Honor Day. But the 75 living recipients of the medal decided to do something different in recent years, handing out the award to three civilians who dedicated their lives to public service.

“Members decided that our legacy would be that you not need be in uniform. You can be a hero equal to us,” former Congressional Medal of Honor Society CEO Gen. Tom Wilkerson told Yahoo News about this year's Citizens Honors Ceremony. “It’s a good thing for them to recognize hometown heroes. Those who have given to their own communities in which they didn’t expect any recognition.”

For example, in 2013 the society honored Sandy Hook Elementary teacher Victoria Soto, who died trying to protect her students.

National Medal of Honor Day was established by Congress in 1990 and falls on March 25 each year. In 1863, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton made the first Medal of Honor presentation. Since then, about 3,400 have received the medal, with some 60 percent awarded posthumously.

To mark this year’s dedication, the honor society is debuting a documentary that chronicles the history of the medal, from its roots in the Civil War era through today.

And while the surviving recipients served with distinction in military service, Wilkerson said the group was specifically inspired to create the civilian honors as a symbol of hope that society may eventually move beyond warfare.

“This is a fraternity that isn’t looking for new members, they aren’t trying to grow,” Wilkerson said. “Because that means America is not embroiled in combat.”

Wilkerson says the process for choosing the civilian recipients is similar to how the military chooses Medal of Honor finalists and recipients.

“We ask fire departments, local communities and other organizations to send their nominees,” he said. “They send news clippings, we check backgrounds to confirm the stories are real. We literally compile a dossier.”

Past Medal of Honor recipients then sort through the hundreds of nominations to determine a pool of about 25 finalists based on a grading system of several categories measuring service to the community. Two of the three recipients are chosen for individual acts of heroism and one for long-term acts of service.

“They are then recognized near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Medal of Honor recipients,” Wilkerson said. “They read a citation, place a medal around their neck. And they cheer for the recipients just as they were cheered at their own event at the White House.”

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