USO Honors Service Heroes During Gala Event
By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 12, 2003 To the United Service Organizations, they are heroes -- the men and women of the armed forces who, among many attributes, characterize bravery, courage and selfless service to their country.
Hundreds of Defense Department personnel, top state and federal government officials, corporate leaders and celebrities came to pay tribute to these service members during the USO's annual gala in the nation's capital Oct. 10, recognizing each military branch.
Retired Army Gen. Tommy Franks addresses the audience during the USO gala in Washington Oct. 10. Franks received the USO Medal of Honor and was given a plaque by the organization. He was recognized for distinguished served to his country, and for leadership and inspiration to service members around the world. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Among those honored was Army Sgt. Noah Harrison, for helping rescue a 7-year- old girl following a recent boating accident in the Washington state's Yakima River. Harrison's air-ambulance team was preparing to redeploy to Iraq, when his medical flight crew intercepted an emergency call for assistance.
Harrison, a flight medic who's assigned to the 54th Medical Company, 62nd Medical Brigade, Fort Lewis, Wash, volunteered to be hoisted into freezing waters to pull the child to safety. He said he "didn't realize how cold it was in the water. I guess my adrenaline was pumping."
Although the crew arrived on the scene within minutes, Harrison said the child's temperature had dropped to 85 degrees by the time they reached her. "When we got her into the aircraft, she was cold and shaking," he said, adding that then "she stopped breathing."
He said the medical flight crewmembers did whatever they could to keep the child warm while working to start her breathing. "She could have died," he said.
There were other stories of heroism as well.
Marine Cpl. Gardner Mejia, currently assigned to 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, Camp Pendleton, Calif., was honored for bravery during Operation Iraqi Freedom. According to published reports, Mejia severely damaged his right hand when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded near him during a patrol in search of Saddam Hussein April 10. However, even with his injuries, he remained on duty, taking charge of rear security with other wounded Marines.
Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Jason Quinn is credited with saving the lives of five crewmembers trapped on the stern of a burning fishing vessel off the Bering Sea in October 2002. A Coast Guard press release stated that Quinn fought chilling temperatures, 25-knot winds and 20-foot seas in growing darkness to reach three of the trapped fishermen, directing them to safety. He then re-entered the water to safely recover the two remaining men. Quinn is currently assigned to Coast Guard Air Station, Humboldt Bay, Eureka, Calif.
Air Force Master Sgt. David Wilkinson, assigned to the 1st Airlift Squadron, 89th Airlift Wing, Andrews Air Force Base, Md., saved the life of a man trapped under his car after a multi-car accident in the Washington area. Almost superhumanly, Wilkinson moved the car off of the man and treated him for shock until medical help arrived.
And then there was Michelle Bourgeois. Embraced by the audience's standing ovation, she walked proudly on stage to accept the award on behalf of her husband, Navy Chief Petty Officer Matthew Bourgeois. Bourgeois, a hospital corpsman deployed from the Naval Base Norfolk, Va., was killed while conducting small-unit training at a remote site near Qandahar, Afghanistan, during Operation Enduring Freedom in March 2002.
Retired Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who ran the war in Iraq and Afghanistan in his last assignment as head of U.S. Central Command, was honored during the gala with the USO's first Distinguished Military Service Award.
He said as the war on terrorism continues, there will be more heroes to honor. "We started a journey after Sept. 11, and that journey is not nearly finished," Franks said. "We have a long, long way to go. And there will be more USO galas like [this] one … and there will be more heroes to recognize in the months and in the years ahead."
The USO, a nonprofit organization founded in 1941, has for 63 years extended programs and services to millions of active duty service members and their families. The organization has 120 locations around the world, and assists service members at airport, fleet-support and community centers.
However, the USO forged its tradition by bringing entertainment to millions of troops in wartime overseas, for which celebrities such as Wayne Newton, who entertained at this year's gala, and the late Bob Hope were much a part.
Hope made his first USO tour in 1942 and continued to entertain troops for more than five decades. Newton takes part in USO-sponsored tours at least twice a year.
Hope, who died this year, was one of the USO's biggest supporters and was designated by Congress as the first honorary veteran of the U.S. armed forces. The USO named the Spirit of Hope Award in his honor.
The USO presents that award each year to a person who exemplifies duty, honor, courage, loyalty, commitment and integrity. This year's recipient, Ann-Margret, was honored for her long-time participation in entertaining U.S. service members on USO tours. She said such characteristics are found in U.S. military members serving today.
During a speech in which she appeared visibly moved by the honor, Margret said she felt "so privileged to be a part of the entertainment the USO provided and still provides for those who serve." She added, "I am so very grateful to have this opportunity to salute all of you who serve with courage, commitment and with faith in this country and in each other."