Fort Polk celebrates essence of National Medal of Honor Day

By Retired Army Lt. Col. MARK LeslieMarch 29, 2023

National Medal of Honor Day
National Medal of Honor Day (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT POLK, La. — The Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk is also known as the Home of Heroes. Thus, it seems appropriate that we are honoring the nation’s Medal of Honor heroes.
Congress established March 25 as National Medal of Honor Day to foster public appreciation and recognition of Medal of Honor recipients. The date is significant, as the first Medal of Honor was awarded March 25, 1863.
The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest award to service members for conspicuous gallantry and courage in combat. Specifically; “The deed performed must have been one of personal bravery or self-sacrifice so conspicuous as to clearly distinguish the individual above his comrades and must have involved risk of life.”
National Medal of Honor Day is the day set aside for the United States to honor and recognize its 3,516 Medal of Honor recipients. To put that relatively small number in context, millions and millions of men and women have served in the nation’s armed forces since the Medal of Honor’s creation in the Civil War and less than 4,000 have received this coveted and indisputable award that represents the nation’s gratitude.
The medal is so highly regarded President Harry Truman is reported to have said on more than one occasion, “I’d rather have the Medal of Honor than be the President.”
We are fortunate to have 65 living Medal of Honor recipients still with us. The most recent medal was awarded March 3, 2023, to U.S. Army Col. Paris Davis for actions in Vietnam.
I have been honored to meet three Medal of Honor recipients and hear them speak. The impression they left on me is indelible. Through their words, I was struck by their humbleness and grace. A common theme they all espoused was that the medal doesn’t represent them alone. Instead, they wear the medal on behalf of all they served with.
To me, this speaks volumes about the character of the man and the integrity of the medal itself. The three I was privileged to talk with extensively and hear on more than one occasion, are Army Col. Robert B Nett, Army Col. Ralph Puckett and Army Col. Roger Donlon. All are incredible human beings, leaders, Soldiers and legends in the Army.
Nett earned the Medal of Honor for actions in the Philippines during World War II and went on to serve in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Puckett earned the medal during the Korean war and went on to serve in Vietnam and Donlon earned the honor as a special forces officer in Vietnam.
Many years ago, I had the privilege of having breakfast with Nett. At the time, my son was about 8 and I asked if he would mind if I brought him. He was more than gracious, telling me that of course I could. It was one of the best moves I ever made. My son is now a staff sergeant in the Army and still remembers Nett’s stories and words of wisdom vividly.
JRTC and Fort Polk have a rich and deep history with the Medal of Honor. Twenty-eight Medal of Honor recipients are from or accredited to the state of Louisiana. Ten of those have been memorialized in Fort Polk’s housing areas with street names. Five are located in Palmetto Terrace, two in Dogwood Terrace and three are in Maple Terrace.
Fort Polk is also privileged to be home to one of the most modern urban training sites in the world, appropriately named in honor of Sgt. 1st Class Randy Shughart and Master Sgt. Gary Gordon, both Medal of Honor recipients from actions in Somalia in 1993.
Fort Polk is slated to be redesignated as Fort Johnson in honor of Sgt. Henry Johnson of Charlie Company, 369th Infantry Regiment, 93rd Division, American Expeditionary Forces. Sergeant Johnson was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during combat operations against the enemy on the front lines of the Western Front in France. When I read Sgt. Johnson’s Medal of Honor citation, it made me think of the question posed by President Regan when he was presenting the Medal of Honor to Master Sgt. Roy Benavidez in 1981.
“Where do we find such men? We found them where we’ve always found them. In our shops, on our farms, on our city streets, in our villages and towns.”
Sgt. Johnson is such a man. His harrowing and heroic actions define courage and commitment in combat.
In observance of this Medal of Honor Day, JRTC and Fort Polk posted tributes on social media, spoke on radio and television about this sacred medal and those that have earned it, created a podcast to educate the community and set up tribute displays on all digital signs on the installation as well as special displays in the Main Post Exchange.
As a proud Army community, I encourage all to learn about the ultimate award that the country can bestow on ordinary men that have performed extraordinary deeds in the most trying of times.
Visit the Fort Polk website to learn more about the 28 Louisianans that have earned the Medal of Honor at (here you can find the 10 street names memorialized on Fort Polk after Medal of Honor recipients), listen to the Fort Polk Podcast or visit the Congressional Medal of Honor Society Web Page at and learn more about the real heroes of this country.
If you are looking something a little more graphic and appealing to youth, I recommend the new Association of the United States Army initiative, the Medal of Honor Graphic Novels page, a relatively new and fresh way to tell and share the stories of these heroes. 
I think you will leave with a renewed sense of appreciation for those that have earned this token of appreciation from the country to an elite group of men and what it means when the security officers at the gates welcome you with “Welcome to JRTC and Fort Polk — The Home of Heroes!”
These men define the word hero!