RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- Even in the company of his fellow Medal of Honor recipients, Walter Ehlers stood out.
"Walt was not just a legend, he was a giant," said Marine Col. (ret.) Jay Vargas. "He was an icon and he was a giant among the Medal of Honor recipients."
As the last surviving member of the elite group who earned his medal on the beaches and fields of Normandy, Ehlers was a longtime leader and mentor for his fellow heroes.
"He was a guide and mentor to me when I entered the Medal of Honor family, and I'll never forget when he, at my first convention, pulled me over and sat me down and said, 'You are no longer Jay Vargas, major, U.S. Marine Corps. You are now Jay Vargas, major, U.S. Marine Corps and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient.'"
Ehlers would take new recipients under his wing, giving them the benefit of his experiences since he earned his in June 1944.
"He took me through the do's and don'ts, and what I was going to run into and he said that 'someday, when you're putting on your socks or shoes, you're going to sit there in a solemn moment of reflection and you?'re going to say, earning the medal is easier than wearing it,'" Vargas said.
Ehlers' words were prophetic, Vargas said, and things did indeed change since he earned his medal during the Vietnam War.
"The demands are non-stop," he said.
With Ehlers' passing, there are just 75 living recipients of the Medal of Honor.
"When I joined, I believe there were 243, with some World War I and many World War II (recipients)," Vargas said. "Everything he told me came true."
A family friend said Ehlers loved spending time with his Medal of Honor brethren.
"He always went to the Medal of Honor Society conventions in Atlanta where he could spend time with his Medal of Honor brothers," Ted Weggeland said. "It provided him the opportunity to spend time with his friends."
The Medal of Honor fraternity won?'t be the same without Ehlers.
"He really opened my eyes," Vargas said. "Icon, giant and leader of men -- that was him."