These Veterans Are Special, But They Are Not “Winners”

By Ron Rand, President & CEO of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation, an MVAT Foundation beneficiary organization.

Today at 11 a.m., President Obama decorated an American hero, Captain Florent A. Groberg, U.S. Army (Ret) with the Medal of Honor, our Nation’s highest military award for valor. Captain Groberg’s story, like all Medal of Honor stories, is a tale of courage and sacrifice, commitment and integrity, citizenship and patriotism. Like all Medal of Honor stories, it is also, more than anything, a tale of love — love of country, love of family, and love of the men and women fighting to your left and to your right.

Sadly, the story of Captain Groberg’s medal will be told, if history is precedent, with descriptions of him being a “winner,” and with reports of him having “won” the Medal. This won’t be unique because for years, people have referred to Medal of Honor recipients as “winners” and to them having “won” their Medals.

However, it would be wrong to call them “winners” or to say they “won” their medals, and here’s why: the living recipients of the Medal of Honor are a rarity in today’s world because they don’t want to be called “winners.” They find that word inappropriate and even offensive when used to describe them, because the Medal is awarded as a result of deliberate acts of courage and sacrifice in the service of our Nation, not for beating anyone at anything.

When Captain Groberg receives his Medal, he will become the 3,494th recipient since President Lincoln signed the Medal into law in December 1861. That’s a tiny fraction of the more than 40 million men and women who have served in the armed forces of the U.S. since 1861, and a real measure of how carefully Medal of Honor recipients are screened. Their actions must be reflective of the highest standards of duty, courage, sacrifice and honor.

Including Captain Groberg, there will be just 79 living recipients after today’s White House ceremony. America’s truest heroes, they are soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen. They earned their Medals in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan. They come from all across America, from all walks of life, and they are lots of things. Heroes. Patriots. Neighbors. Friends. Husbands. Fathers. Sons. Brothers. Grandfathers. Businessmen. Farmers. Students. Most are retired now, but several still work for a living.

One thing they are not, however, is “winners.” To a man, they will tell you, with quiet humility and respect, that they didn’t “win” their Medals because war isn’t a competition for personal glory. When faced with seemingly insurmountable odds in combat, they simply refused to quit. They didn’t give up. They did what was expected of them. They did what they knew the men fighting with them were doing.

They did their duty, and in doing their duty, they earned their Medals. They are recipients. And to a man, they wear their Medals to honor all who served, and especially in memory of all who made the ultimate sacrifice. They believe that calling them “winners” cheapens all that.

These heroes have demonstrated valor, selfless service and patriotism, in combat and in their everyday actions since. Today, they take every opportunity to tell Americans — especially our youth — about the importance of courage, selfless service and sacrifice in making a difference in the lives of others.

Before I met any recipients, before I came to work at their Foundation, before I knew them and their stories of heroism, I used to call them winners, too. Now, with utmost respect for all they’ve done for our country and with gratitude for their service on our behalf, I call them recipients. That’s their shared wish, asked repeatedly with their trademark humility and respect. On their behalf, and spurred by their simple request to “Please ask people to stop calling us winners,” I ask everyone to do them that honor and call them recipients. Today and every day, these special veterans have earned that much.