Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Forgotten Man?

With the pending closure of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, Deborah Joel is worried that her father may be forgotten.

For more than 20 years, the main auditorium at Walter Reed has been named for her father, Lawrence Joel, who received the Medal of Honor for Heroism in Vietnam.

In November 8, 1965 Joel was a combat medic, assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade which was participating in Operation Hump, near Bien Hoa. As they attempted to push the Viet Cong from defensive positions in the area, Joel's unit was ambushed by a larger enemy force. For the next 24 hours--and despite being wounded twice--Joel (then a Specialist 5) risked his life to care for scores of wounded men, saving many of them.

When his medical supplies ran out, Joel improvised a bandage from a plastic bag to cover a serious chest wound on an injured GI, preventing him from bleeding to death. Shot twice in the right leg, Specialist Joel defied orders to stay on the ground and kept going out to help his fellow soldiers. At least a dozen survivors of the battle owe their lives to Lawrence Joel and his heroism.

Specialist Joel received the CMH from President Johnson at the White House in March 1967, becoming the first living African-American recipient of that award since the Spanish-American War. Joel retired from the Army as a Sergeant First Class in 1973, after 27 years of service. He died of complications from diabetes in 1984, and received a hero's burial at Arlington National Cemetary. A few years later, the auditorium at Walter Reed was named in his honor. But there are no plans for a similar honor at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center or the new Army Community Hosptial at Fort Belvoir, which will replace Walter Reed as the primary military health care facilities in the nation's capital region.

Deborah Joel told the Washington Post that she was shocked by the decision, and the lack of an explanation from the Army.

Make no mistake: Lawrence Joel is a hero in the greatest sense of that word; a soldier who put his own life on the line to save wounded GIs. From our perspective, his place in the pantheon of America's heroes is secure, based on his service in two wars, and his intrepid actions on that fateful day in November, 1965.

But it's also worth noting that there is no guarantee that the naming of a base (or particular facility) will continue in perpetuity. There are plenty of military installations that were closed--without the name being transferred to another base or facility. For example, there are no plans to name another Army post "Fort Monroe," after the iconic base in Hampton, VA is shuttered later this fall.

We should also remember that the name of Lawrence Joel will live on long after that auditorium at Walter Reed closes its doors. Not only will Joel be memorialized as one of the the handful of brave Americans to receive the MOH, the Army has done its part to honor his legacy. You see, there's an important element missing from the WaPo account: along with the auditorium in Washington, military clinics at Fort McPherson, GA and Fort Bragg, NC are named for him, as is the street that encircles the Army hospital at Fort Campbell, KY. Additionally, the coliseum in Joel's hometown, Winston-Salem, NC, is named in his honor.

Lawrence Joel has been gone for more than a quarter-century. But as long as this nation honors and reveres its war heroes, he will never be forgotten.

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