WASHINGTON, Oct. 28, 2011 -- Given Italian Americans' emphasis on family, it was fitting that the first Marine Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone Award for Distinguished Military Service was presented to a father-son duo.
Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno and his son, retired Army Capt. Anthony K. Odierno, received the Basilone Award from the National Italian American Foundation in a ceremony at the National Archives last night.
The award's namesake is John Basilone, a World War II-era Marine who received the Medal of Honor for his actions on Guadalcanal in 1942. The gunnery sergeant could have stayed out of combat for the rest of the war, but insisted on going back to his unit. Basilone was killed at Iwo Jima in February 1945 while leading attacks against Japanese pillboxes, earning the Navy Cross.
The elder Odierno, the Army's chief of staff, spoke of how appropriate it was having the foundation's military appreciation dinner in the National Archives, where the original U.S. Constitution is on display in the rotunda.
"As we join the military, the one thing that you do is swear an oath to the Constitution of the United States," the general said. "I don't think there are very many nations who do that. I remember when I was in Iraq and I tried to explain this to the Iraqis, they never quite understood what I was talking about.
"The fact is that it's about the Constitution," he continued. "It's not about a specific leader. It's not about you, yourself. It's about you swearing to support and defend the Constitution."
The four-star general recalled his family's American journey.
"I think about my grandfather, who came over from Italy in the early 1900s," he said. "He lived with his father and started a butcher business in New York City. Later on, they wanted to get out of the big city, so they moved 20 miles west to New Jersey and continued the business there."
The Army general said he remembers when his father told him how proud his grandfather was upon becoming an American citizen and that his four sons all went to college.
"I can't imagine what he would think today, understanding what I have achieved in that the grandson of an Italian immigrant can be chief of staff of the United States Army," the general said. "That's why this country is so great."
Odierno thanked the National Italian American Foundation for reaching out to veterans. He spoke of a mentorship program the foundation has that works with veterans to get them jobs with Fortune 500 countries.
The younger Odierno, a West Point graduate like his father, served as an infantry platoon leader with the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad. His vehicle was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade on Aug. 21, 2004, and he lost his left arm.
The most special times in life, he said, are with family.
"And it's an honor to accept [this award] with my father," he added.
The younger Odierno said he researched the Basilone's history.
"When you read what he did, you have to think that your service pales in comparison," he said. "But the reality is that we all volunteer to serve this country and we were all willing to give our bodies and our lives for what this country stands for: liberty, freedom, opportunity and equality."
Vincent Viola, the co-chair of the foundation's military appreciation dinner, and retired Marine Gen. Peter Pace, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, chaired the dinner, which they hope to make into an annual event.