REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- They didn't think. They just did.

Twenty-four recipients of the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration, gathered in Huntsville for the Medal of Honor Gala: In the Company of Heroes Aug. 28.

Bowties and ball gowns filled the Davidson Center in celebration of the largest gathering of Medal of Honor recipients in the history of Alabama. The black tie event was emceed by Fox News anchor Jon Scott, with special music guest Randy Owen and astronaut Jan Davis. The Medal of Honor is awarded for "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of one's life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States."

Col. Don "Doc" Ballard was returning to his platoon in the Quang Tri Province in Vietnam in 1968 when his company was ambushed. In the course of the fight he threw himself upon a lethal explosive device to protect his comrades.

"I am a winner because I survived. I lived where others did not. I do not know where I would have been without that."

As Ballard and others recipients will tell you, they do not wear the medal for themselves, but for their country and their fellow servicemembers that are as equally, if not more deserving -- some that were able to live to tell the tale, others that paid the ultimate price for their country. Five men have been awarded the Medal of Honor for their service in the recent Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, all posthumously, the last in September 2009. Currently, there are 87 living recipients of the Medal of Honor.

Almost as noticeable as the blue ribbons that adorn the medals around the guests' of honors necks was the face of Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who skyrocketed to celebrity status after successfully landing US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River in January 2009. Sullenberger was awarded the American Spirit Award, an honor presented by the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation to individuals that have performed courageous life-saving acts utilizing professional knowledge and skill in dangerous situations.

"He picked the best day to have a really good day," joked Leo Thorsness, Medal of Honor recipient and Madison resident. "It's like a perfect storm of perfection and this man did it."

Sullenberger credits his knowledge of Manhattan to landing the plane in what he described as the "best place." The rest speaks to why he was chosen for the award.

"Courage is not the absence of fear," Sullenberger said. "Courage is having the discipline and continence to do what you need to do in spite of it."

Humbled by the honor bestowed by men that gave so much to their country, Sullenberger spoke of the Medal of Honor recipients, and what a true hero really is.

"I've had time to think about what the word 'hero' really means and I think in our society we overuse it," Sullenberger said. "And when we overuse something, we diminish what it really means. The word 'hero' describes traits that go to the very heart of what it means to be human...By their actions they have proven that they deserve all the gratitude that we can give them."

Money raised at the gala will go toward the Medal of Honor Curriculum Project, which focuses on character development focused around the values embodied in the Medal - courage, integrity, sacrifice, commitment, citizenship and patriotism. More than 100 videos of "living histories" told by the recipients themselves are included in the 48 lesson plans.

Developed in Erie, Pa., the curriculum is only in place in Pennsylvania, the Aurora school district of Denver, Colo., and now in the Huntsville, Madison and Madison County school districts, with the goal of it one day being taught in classrooms across the country. The Huntsville community was chosen for its ability for the curriculum to really make an impact. The gala was a showcase of the curriculum's presence in Huntsville.

"This is a community that deserves it," said Jennifer Lennon with the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. "This gala was a celebration of the fact that Huntsville was chosen."

For the heroes passing these stories on to America's youth, perhaps the most important message they want to pass on to students is a sense of "universal service," that everyone, whether in uniform or not, can make a difference in America.

"We want to inspire our youth to get back to the basic principles of Americanism and patriotism," Ballard said.

"They are our future," Col. Jack Jacobs told the gala crowd. "Some will be leaders, but hopefully all of them will become upstanding citizens. We want in them the same values we think are embodied in ourselves and embodied in the Medal of Honor. Without them, there won't be any future."

The overwhelming response of the Huntsville community to the recipients, Lennon said, is something she's only seen once before, years ago in Boston, and is something she and medal recipients will not soon forget.

"It wasn't just about the gala, it wasn't about all the pomp and circumstance, it was truly the community support," said Lennon who watched as people young and old applauded and cheered as the recipients were taken by bus from Bridge Street Town Centre to the Davidson Center, holding posters and saluting. "They really felt the warmth of the community. It was an emotional kind of moment."

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16