Every year, recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor award selfless acts of bravery by everyday citizens. My father Paul Bucha, a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, was one of the creators of this citizen’s award. Past recipients of the award, called the Citizen Service Before Self Honors, have included Dr. Jordy Cox of Arizona, who performed surgeries that saved lives in Haiti and the Ivory Coast, Jeffry Michael Ross of California, who pulled a woman from a sinking vehicle, and Jeremy Hernandez a part-time youth worker, who saved the lives of 50 children when their school bus was about to plunge into the Mississippi River following the I-35W Bridge Collapse. This year, the living recipients of the Congressional Medal Honor chose to bestow the nation’s highest medal for civilian valor to the the six educators who lost their lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The award is usually presented in a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, but this year, four Medal of Honor recipients, including my father, Jack Jacobs, Bruce Crandall, Thomas Kelley, and Medal of Honor Society Foundation President Thomas Wilkerson travelled to Newtown for the presentation. I imagine that these ceremonies are emotionally confusing for the recipient, especially when, as was the case this year, the award is presented posthumously. I’m sure their families would rather they never had to be there. I know my father would rather never have been in the firefight that led him to acts of courage resulting in a Medal of Honor. It was easy to see this struggle on the faces of the family members of slain teachers in Newtown yesterday.
There was another award presented. This one from the Fire Department in Winlock, Washington. Fire Commissioner Randy Pennington and his wife Carrie, an elementary school teacher who is also an EMT and has been with the Winlock volunteer fire department for thirty years, watched the news unfold on December 14th with the same horror felt by all of us. They could not believe how much Newtown looked like their own small town. Pennington described Winlock as, “The kind of place where men meet at the diner every morning and talk about everything from soup to nuts, and the women meet at the beauty parlor and talk about the men.” The Penningtons felt connected to Newtown, and wanted to do something to help. They discussed sending toys or money. Then Pennington had an idea. He knew that if any one of the firefighters in his firehouse acted as bravely and selflessly as the Sandy Hook teachers, they would qualify for the Firefighter’s Medal of Honor. At a January 8th meeting of the fire department, commissioner Pennington made a motion to recognize each of the six fallen teachers as firefighters in the Winlock Fire Department. The motion was unanimously approved. Then he made a motion to promote the teachers to the rank of captain, and awarded each a Medal of Honor for their actions. They did not want to send the medals, which are given out very rarely, by UPS. At a local basketball game, their efforts were announced, and Pennington stood at the door holding a fireman’s boot collecting donations to award the medals in person. The people of Winlock emptied their wallets into that boot, including one four-year old who added the entire contents of her purse. Their second fundraiser was a spaghetti dinner, which was unfortunately scheduled on a night when the basketball team was playing a championship game in another town. Only fourteen people came to the spaghetti dinner, eight of them children. When they tallied up the money at the end of the night, those six adults had donated over eight hundred dollars.
The Penningtons brought seven medals. Six for the teachers who gave their lives in trying to save students, and one for the Sandy Hook Elementary School community. Her voice breaking, Carrie Pennington said, “All gave some. Some gave all.”