The Medal of Honor

Who is a hero? If you asked a ten-year-old, their response might be one of the fictional types such as Batman, Captain America, or Belle… or one of today’s athletes or celebrities.  Of course, an adult’s answer would be much different. What is the definition of hero?

According to Google, it is a person who, in the opinion of others, has special achievements, abilities, or personal qualities and is regarded as a role model or ideal. Or a person noted for courageous acts or nobility of character.  While searching for real-life heroes today, I found stories of great courage, many that we fail to hear about because it seems the bad outweighs the good on our news channels.  A sigh of relief came over me when I discovered stories about two Medal of Honor recipients who were included in a random article’s list of ten heroes. 

When my family first began enjoying computers, I would search for my brother’s name.  He is a real-life hero who received the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military award for valor while serving in Vietnam.  At that time there was very little information about him or the Medal of Honor. 

I was saddened to find that a video game was named the Medal of Honor. How did that happen? To avoid any confusion for those who may not know, the Medal of Honor I’m referring to is NOT the video shooter game series Steven Spielberg created that folks enjoy playing on their Xbox or PlayStation.  If we speak of the Medal of Honor to a young person, do they know the difference?

Another misconception is that the Medal of Honor is won…that the recipient is a ‘winner’.  It is NOT an award that is won, nor a prize to be won.  It is earned!

Air Force Captain Hilliard A. Wilbanks is a real-life hero.  He died in 1967 and eleven months later was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously on January 24, 1968.  

Growing up in the small town of Cornelia, GA, he joined the Air Force at age 17 serving first as an air policeman. Before his four-year commitment was up, he was accepted for Officer Candidate School.  He was an outstanding graduate, got his wings and served as an instructor and maintenance officer test pilot.  He married and became the father of four children.  By the time he was sent to Vietnam, he had served almost 16 years. 

He was assigned to II Corps in the Southern Highlands of Vietnam. His job was Forward Air Controller, flying a small, unarmed Cessna-type plane called the Bird Dog, doing visual reconnaissance each day searching for the enemy, calling in air strikes, then assessing battle damage.  Instead of flying the fast jets he loved, he was assigned the extremely dangerous but particularly important job of FAC.  There were bounties on the heads of FAC’s which we did not know about. 

By Feb. 24, 1967, he had served 11 months and had flown 487 missions.  He was due to come home in just a few weeks to his wife and four children, with twins who were born just after he left the states. But it was not to be. 

Fighting had been going on all that day and the FAC who had been working in the area needed relief so Capt. Wilbanks was dispatched to assist in the operation against enemy forces who were attacking near Dalat, South Vietnam.  He was flying visual reconnaissance for a South Vietnamese Ranger Battalion when he discovered the numerically superior Viet Cong, dug-in and well concealed.  He immediately called for air support and alerted the Rangers and their American advisors who were advancing into the area.  He was told that help would arrive in about five minutes, but the American advisors responded, “that would be five minutes too late”.  He used his phosphorus marking rockets and made passes directly over the enemy to draw fire away from the Rangers.

Realizing their ambush was being compromised, the Viet Cong unleashed firepower on the Bird Dog with everything they had.  On his second and third passes, he personally began firing his M-16 rifle, carried for personal protection in case he was shot down, from the plane’s side window.    Despite his plane being hit repeatedly by enemy fire, he persisted but was severely wounded on the third pass and crashed in the battle area.  He was able to distract the enemy and momentarily slowed their advance, allowing the Rangers to retreat and lives were saved. After help arrived, the Rangers managed to rescue him from the wreckage, but he died on the way to a hospital.

The person who receives the Medal of Honor is never a ‘winner’.  Huge sacrifices are always made but most often, it is earned by sacrificing one’s own life.  Some recipients live through the hell of war and can survive. There are 65 living recipients today.  Sometimes it is called the Congressional Medal of Honor, but it is simply the Medal of Honor.  It is rare!  Out of forty-one million men and women who have served in our military, only 3,534 medals have been given since its inception during the Civil War. [Medal of Honor Historical Society] 

The recipients “…embody the values that we our country strive to uphold—courage, bravery and the desire and dedication to do what is right in the midst of life’s most difficult circumstances.  But they are unique.  They are parents and siblings, colleagues and friends.  They are ordinary people who did extraordinary things, each with their own story to tell.  Honor their sacrifice!!!”  [Congressional Medal of Honor Society website.]  

Congress designated March 25th annually as “National Medal of Honor Day” in 1990?  The Hilliard A. Wilbanks Foundation has funded an endowment for scholarships at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega.  The Captain Hilliard A. Wilbanks Medal of Honor Memorial Scholarship is specifically designed for ROTC cadets who desire higher education and have the desire to serve our country.