By Andrea Sutherland (Fort Carson)October 13, 2011
FORT CARSON, Colo. -- Soldiers past and present gathered at the Mountain Post Oct. 6 to honor the man many revered as humble, stoic and a "Soldier's Soldier."
1st Sgt. David H. McNerney, the last living "Ivy" Division recipient of the Medal of Honor, died Oct. 10, 2010. Nearly a year after his death, his Soldiers, family and current 4th Infantry Division Soldiers gathered at Fort Carson to honor McNerney's final wish: to return his medal to the 4th Inf. Div.
"This is the first time that this sort of bequest has ever been done," said Brig. Gen. James H. Doty, acting senior commander, 4th Inf. Div. and Fort Carson.
"We know this is the first time something like this has happened," said retired Lt. Col. Rick Sauer, McNerney's lieutenant in 1967 and longtime friend. "There is no protocol."
Sauer thanked senior leaders at Fort Carson for honoring his first sergeant.
"Some lost David, their friend," Sauer said. "Some lost David, their brother. Some lost David, their uncle. The men of A Company lost their first sergeant."
President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded McNerney the nation's highest honor Sept. 19, 1968, for his heroic actions in Vietnam March 22, 1967.
In the jungles of Polei Doc, later named "The Valley of Tears," a battalion from the North Vietnamese army ambushed McNerney and the Soldiers of Company A, 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment. McNerney exposed himself to enemy fire multiple times in an effort to keep his Soldiers alive. After the company commander and officers were killed or severely wounded, McNerney took command of the company, refusing to leave the battlefield despite his own injuries until a replacement could relieve him.
"Sgt. McNerney always said the medal belonged to all of them, he was just privileged to wear it," said Gerald Blankenship, McNerney's close friend.
Senior Mission Command Sgt. Maj. John Kurak, 4th Inf. Div. and Fort Carson, said McNerney embodied the noncommissioned officers' creed, which was written 20 years after McNerney's retirement.
"I sat with the first sergeant at a change of command ceremony in 2009," Kurak said. "He asked about the Soldiers, their training and their well-being. I realized that 50 years after his retirement, he was still following orders to look after Soldiers."
As the survivors from the Valley of Tears wept for the memory of their first sergeant, Sauer charged the men with a final task.
"You have one last mission at the request of your first sergeant," he said.
The veterans of 1st Bn., 8th Inf. Reg., stood, forming a semicircle, their contemporary counterparts standing in formation behind them.
McNerney's brother, Richard McNerney, held the Medal of Honor and passed it to Blankenship, saluting his brother's medal. Blankenship then passed the medal to the men of Company A, each clasping their hands over the medal that represented the man they saw as their second father.
"He earned that medal," said Pete DeRita, a sergeant in Company A during the 1967 attack. "He fought for that medal. He saved all of our lives for that medal."
After each member of Company A had passed the medal, Sauer presented it to the current first sergeant of Company A, 1st Bn., 8th Inf. Reg., Sgt. 1st Class Andrew C. Whittingham. Sauer and the veterans gave a final salute, signifying their farewell and completing the symbolic turnover from their first sergeant to the current members of the 4th Inf. Div.
"He wanted the Soldiers of today and tomorrow to have it," said David Vigliotti, a former sergeant serving under David McNerney. "He would have been proud."