President Hosts Nation's Combat Heroes
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 23, 2001 Every four years, the land of the free and home of the brave invites the bravest of all to attend the presidential inauguration here.
This year, nearly 100 of the 150 living Medal of Honor recipients attended the inauguration of America's 43rd president, George W. Bush. Veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam traveled from their homes across America for the ceremony.
Medal of Honor recipient Nicholas Oresko of Tenafly, N.J., and his friend Genevieve Doocey attend a Salute to Veterans hosted by then Vice President-elect Dick Cheney at the George Washington University Smith Center in Washington D.C. The pre-inaugural event Jan. 19, 2001, was just one honoring 100 living Medal of Honor heroes. Oresko, a World War II veteran, has attended all the nation's presidential inaugurations since Dwight D. Eisenhower became president. Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"I've been coming all these years since Eisenhower's inauguration and they've all been wonderful," said Medal of Honor recipient Nicholas Oresko. "But today was one of the greatest because the president and the vice president and the secretary of defense all came by and shook our hands. It was wonderful, unexpected excitement."
More than a half century ago, Oresko, of Tenafly, N.J., was an Army master sergeant with the 94th Infantry Division in Germany. In a one-man attack, and despite serious wounds, he rushed two German bunkers, killing 12 German soldiers, making it possible for his company to obtain its objectives with minimum casualties.
Members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars escorted Oresko and other Medal of Honor recipients while they were in the capital. Then Vice President-elect Dick Cheney hosted a pre-inaugural salute to veterans with a surprise appearance by then President-elect George W. Bush.
The Reserve Officers Association hosted a breakfast Jan. 20, and the American Legion hosted a "Salute to Heroes" reception, banquet and ball that evening at the Capital Hilton. Cheney and Bush, accompanied by their wives, Lynne Cheney and Laura Bush, stopped by to again salute the vets prior to visiting inaugural balls throughout the capital.
"By tradition," Cheney told the heroes, "this is always the first event the president and vice president visit before we begin the round of inaugural balls, and that's for a very good reason."
It's "because of the enormous obligation and debt that we have to all of you who served in the U.S. military, veterans as well as the Medal of Honor recipients who are here tonight. On behalf of Lynne and myself, let me thank you for what you've done for all of us."
Bush echoed Cheney's support for the tradition. "It's right that it be that way," the president said. "It makes good sense to start here.
"The inaugural balls are a reflection of the wonderful freedoms we have in America -- the free transfer of power that took place today," he noted. "This is a free land, however, it would not have been free necessarily without the sacrifice of the men and women who have worn our uniform."
Bush said he was honored to be with the soon-to-be head of the Veterans Affairs Department, Tony Principi, who "understands that a promise made will be a promise kept to the men and women who wear the uniform."
He also said he wanted to be with the leaders of the military branches -- "fine men who lead some of the finest citizens anywhere in the world."
"Their mission and our mission is to keep the peace," Bush said. "The way to do so is to make sure our military is highly trained and well paid." The chain of command must ensure "that our soldiers are fully prepared to fight and win war, and therefore, prevent war from happening in the first place."
Bush said it's an honor and a duty to serve as president and commander and chief. "I look forward to that honor and duty with pride. ... God bless what you all have done for America, and God bless America."
A day earlier, at a luncheon hosted by Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the heroes their "exploits and feats of courage have contributed greatly to the longevity of our republic."
He commended the Medal of Honor Society for its continuing effort to highlight the courage and sacrifices recipients have made. "Your thoughts on courage, duty, leadership, teamwork and camaraderie are priceless pearls of wisdom and experience for our young men and women," Shelton said.
The chairman speculated about what motivated the recipients to perform their heroic deeds. Perhaps it was a gut reaction in the heat of battle, he said, or a desire to save a buddy's life. It could have been anger at the opponent or the fear of being captured or dying in a faraway place, he said.
"Maybe," Shelton said, "it was the sheer will to win or the flashing thought of the alternative. Whatever it was that motivated you, you did something that no one can be sure any other man would have done or could have done. ...
"You didn't quit," the general stressed. "You didn't give in to your fears. You didn't let the situation overwhelm you. You had the presence of mind and faith in your maker and in your abilities to do what needed to be done. ... We as a nation are made stronger by having citizens like you."
Talking to the recipients, however, one usually gets a much more humble view of the nation's heroes. To a man, they downplay their actions, saying they were only doing their job.
"I stayed in my foxhole 24 hours a day. We were scared all the time," said World War II veteran George T. Sakato. "We were shaking. After three weeks of street fighting, I was so tired I fell asleep. The next morning I woke up and the other guys said I slept through machine guns firing and grenades going off."
Sakato, from Denver, received his Medal of Honor last June when President Clinton awarded medals to 22 World War II soldiers of Asian-Pacific descent. Only 10 of those 22 heroes survived the war and only seven are still alive today.
"I crawled into my helmet as far as I could go," said Medal of Honor recipient Rudy D. Davila, another World War II vet.
Standing together after the June 19 Salute to Veterans, Sakato and Davila studied a commemorative coin from the 173rd Airborne Regiment. Reflecting back on 1943 and 1944, each traced his route through Italy, outlined on the coin. Davila said his unit landed at Anzio.
"We swept through and we found a lot of Polish prisoners and Italian soldiers who wanted us to take them prisoner," he said. "We said, 'No, the war is over for you guys. Go home.'"
For more information on the Medal of Honor recipients, go to: '... What We Were Fighting for Was Each Other'