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U.S. Marine Medal of Honor Recipients: Even Superman Needs Someone to Look Up To

The following is a guest blog post by Kerry Ward, liaison specialist for the Veterans History Project (VHP), and is the third in a series of blog posts relating to the Medal of Honor.

The recent slew of superhero films have me recognizing that while they are brilliant and entertaining, at movie’s end the superheroes disappear. After filming, the actors and actresses portraying these superhuman heroes will strip off their masks and capes, leaving all the superpowers behind as they return to their normal lives. The good news is that true heroes walk amongst us every day.

While they may lack the power of flight or ability to spin a web, our superheroes serve their community and country with selfless courage and integrity, protecting and inspiring the rest of us.

As we celebrate the U.S. Marine Corps’ 242nd birthday, let’s take a closer look at some of the elite flesh and blood superheroes in the VHP collections – Medal of Honor Marines who have valiantly improvised, adapted and overcome great odds.

Photo of the Navy Medal of Honor (also awarded to Marines). Photo by navy.mil/moh.

Created during the Civil War, the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military distinction, has been awarded to 3,516 individuals. This rare and prestigious personal military decoration is awarded to those who gallantly go above and beyond the call of duty, risking their lives and displaying conspicuous bravery distinguishable from their comrades.  Due to their selfless sacrifice, it is often awarded posthumously; only 72 of these recipients are alive today.  Just as the Marines, who make up only 15 percent of our armed forces, are renowned as the “Few and the Proud,” there are only 13 Marines living today who have earned the distinction of Medal of Honor recipient.

Major General James E. Livingston in uniform. James E. Livingston Collection. Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, AFC/2001/001/103974.

While thousands of heroes have emerged since the inception of the U.S. Marine Corps on November 10, 1775, James E. Livingston has earned the title, “Leatherneck Legend.”  Growing up in the 1940’s on a 3,000 acre dirt farm in Towns, Georgia, Livingston learned the importance of hard work and determination at a young age.  After college, Livingston received an Army draft card, but instead chose to enlist in the Marines in 1962. Livingston’s career advanced through the ranks of command to Captain, and he was ordered to the Republic of Vietnam as Commanding Officer of Company E, the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade, known simply as E Company, in 1968.

With one devastating battle after another in Dai Do, E Company was sent in to assist another Marine company, which had been isolated the night before, when enemy forces seized the village. Skillfully employing screening agents, Livingston maneuvered his men to assault positions.  Despite being wounded twice by grenade fragments, Livingston refused medical treatment, and instead shouted words of encouragement to his men as they continued across the 500 meters of open rice fields, where they destroyed over 100 mutually supporting bunkers, driving the remaining enemy from their position and relieving the pressure on the stranded Marines. Having reestablished contact with the surrounded Marine Company, Livingston then learned of a third Marine Company leading an attack on nearby Dinh To village. Marshalling his resources, Livingston consolidated the two companies and led a support effort to halt the aggressive enemy counter attack from Dinh To. After being wounded a third time and rendered immobile, he remained in the combat zone and supervised the evacuation of these men.

Three days of a relentless battle of attrition with 800 Marines battling 10,000 North Vietnamese soldiers was finally coming to a victorious end for the United States. Livingston was dragged from the battlefield by two Marines as he continued to shoot at the enemy. Only after he was assured of his fellow Marines’ safety did Livingston allow himself to be evacuated.

James E. Livingston (screenshot from video). James E. Livingston Collection. Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/89726

For his gallantry, bravery and selflessness, he was awarded the Medal of Honor from President Richard Nixon in 1970.  After 33 years of service, Livingston hung up his service uniform. Taking the expression: “Once a Marine, Always a Marine” to heart, Livingston looked to write the next chapter of service to America through his public service career.  He authored the novel: “Noble Warrior: The Story of Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston.”  He also serves on numerous volunteer boards and speaks on leadership and service to country.

From his modest beginning on the dirt farm to the White House and then back to service, Livingston’s actions display nothing short of a true leader and hero who focuses on the ultimate objective over self.

President Barack Obama leads an ovation for Corporal William “Kyle” Carpenter, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.), after awarding him the Medal of Honor during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, June 19, 2014. Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson.

Remember in the “Captain America” film when scrawny, but altruistic, Steve Rogers jumped on a grenade to absorb the blow so his fellow soldiers would not perish?  Luckily for him, this was just a test, and one in which nobody was harmed. While it is an all too real drill practiced in the Marines, it is an act nobody wants to have to perform in real life. The story of Steve and Captain America is a fictitious tale; the remarkable story of self-sacrifice came to life when Marine Cpl. William Kyle Carpenter deliberately faced the intolerant force of a grenade in order to protect his Marine brother.

Having joined the Marines in 2009, it wasn’t long until Carpenter found himself standing next to his best friend, Lance Corporal Nicholas Eufrazio, atop a mud hut in Afghanistan that fateful November day. On a mission to build a new patrol base to wrestle control of the area from the Taliban, the 12-man squad had received sporadic fire, and eventually three grenades thrown into the compound.  One of those grenades would forever change Carpenter and Eufrazio’s lives.

The grenade landed right between the two Marines. Carpenter leapt to cover the grenade without hesitation.  While he doesn’t remember much of what happened before or after, during his VHP interview, Carpenter cites his instinctual training for his deliberate action.

“Marines are a different breed… It is ingrained in us early on that you are part of something bigger than yourself.  You are a force that your country needs. There is a bond and love for one another that comes when you wear the uniform. I know that if 100 marines were put in that position, they would’ve done the same for me.”

Absorbing 99 percent of the explosion, Carpenter’s body was still smoking when the medical corpsman found him. He was catastrophically wounded in his face, jaw and upper and lower extremities. Both he and Eufrazio miraculously survived, but not without serious and long-term health challenges.

Refusing to let his injuries define him, Carpenter began a degree in International Studies, has run marathons, skydived and continues to serve as an inspiration to his community through public speaking on veterans’ issues. To many, he serves as a shining beacon of willing yourself to triumph over adversity.  In 2013, at only 24 years of age, he became the eighth living recipient to be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan.

While only a glimpse at what the Marine Corps stands for, these two “Devil Dogs” accurately reflect the character of its founders.  Just as the Medal of Honor symbolizes the very best of what our country stands for, Marines are everyday people who possess an inner strength unlike any movie super hero. They are part of something bigger.  They are Marines.

On your 242nd birthday, we send you incredible patriots our humble gratitude for your service. OOO-rah and Semper Fidelis!

To all veterans everywhere, no matter which branch, we salute you this Veterans Day and always.

Be sure to check out “Stories Above and Beyond,” our online portal to Medal of Honor collections, and keep checking this space for additional blog posts relating to the Medal of Honor.

 

 

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