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The call of a hero

U.S. Marine Corps Cpl., Hershel "Woody" Williams, received the Medal of Honor for his gallantry in action during the Battle of Iwo Jima, Feb. 23, 1945. Williams fought for four hours through small-arms fire while returning charges at the enemy with his flamethrower. (Courtesy photo)

U.S. Marine Corps Cpl., Hershel "Woody" Williams, received the Medal of Honor for his gallantry in action during the Battle of Iwo Jima, Feb. 23, 1945. Williams fought for four hours through small-arms fire while returning charges at the enemy with his flamethrower. (Courtesy photo)

Hershel "Woody" Williams, an Iwo Jima Medal of Honor recipient, speaks during the Iwo Jima Survivors Reunion Luncheon at Sheppard Elementary School on February 19, 2010. The students honored the veterans with a musical tribute after the luncheon. (Courtesy photo)

Hershel "Woody" Williams, an Iwo Jima Medal of Honor recipient, speaks during the Iwo Jima Survivors Reunion Luncheon at Sheppard Elementary School on February 19, 2010. The students honored the veterans with a musical tribute after the luncheon. (Courtesy photo)

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Emily Copeland (left) and Tech. Sgt. Rashelle Gomez (right) take a photo with Hershel "Woody" Williams, the last living Medal of Honor recipient from the Battle of Iwo Jima at Fort Chadbourne, Texas, May 11, 2017. Williams spoke on his advocacy for Gold Star Families and pinned Vietnam veterans during his Dinner with a Hero event. (Courtesy photo)

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Emily Copeland (left) and Tech. Sgt. Rashelle Gomez (right) take a photo with Hershel "Woody" Williams, the last living Medal of Honor recipient from the Battle of Iwo Jima at Fort Chadbourne, Texas, May 11, 2017. Williams spoke on his advocacy for Gold Star Families and pinned Vietnam veterans during his Dinner with a Hero event. (Courtesy photo)

DYESS AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --

“Congratulations Airman Copeland,” said Lt. Col. Michael Sims, 7th Bomb Wing director of staff. “You’ve been selected to represent the Airmen of Dyess for the Dinner with a Hero.”

I was aware of my nomination by my flight commander to attend the dinner, but wasn’t positive that I would be selected, seeing that I was a new Airman to the base. My face immediately lit up when Sims shook my hand and congratulated me on the selection. Not only was I honored, I was thrilled that I would be attending a dinner with the last living Medal of Honor recipient from the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Who is this Medal of Honor recipient? His name is Hershel “Woody” Williams, a young corporal who put other’s lives and our country before all else.  

I had heard many things about him, but I took it upon myself to dive deeper into his story and educate myself on his distinguished actions.

This man is literally the definition of going “above and beyond the call of duty.” After being in the U.S. Marine Corps for only two years, Williams landed himself in Iwo Jima on February 21, 1945. Only two days after his arrival on the island, American tanks were trying to open a lane for infantry and had encountered several reinforced concrete pill boxes, buried mines and black volcanic sands.

Covered by only four riflemen, he went forward with his 70-pound flamethrower for nearly four hours under enemy fire and took out one position after the other. After approaching close enough to a Japanese bunker, Williams took out the occupants and enemy riflemen with bursts from his flamethrower.

Crazy right? Who in their right mind would be willing to charge enemies while carrying 70 pounds of diesel fuel on their back? I can tell you, it would be few and far between. It wouldn’t take much for the enemy to shoot the fuel storage portion of the flamethrower and harm not only Williams, but others around him.

That is the definition of courageous and heroic act, to charge through the battle with little regard for his own life in order to protect his brothers and sisters in arms. Williams truly fit the bill for a Medal of Honor recipient, and I was absolutely honored to attend his dinner.

After arriving at Fort Chadbourne, Texas, my eyes immediately fell on a man in the center of the room wearing a red dress coat and displaying a prestigious medal. It was Williams, talking and joking around with a group of Marines. Sims caught his eye and we proceeded to go find a minute of his time to introduce ourselves and thank him for the tremendous privilege of attending the dinner.

Upon the introduction he grasped my hand and thanked me for MY service. Williams didn’t speak a word about himself, but used those few minutes to ask about me and what I do. To be completely honest, I had never met a Medal of Honor recipient and really didn’t know what to expect from him. It took me by surprise how humble and kind he was towards a little Airman 1st Class, only one year into the Air Force.

Continuing on, I watched how he interacted with the crowd, making his way from group to group ensuring he got the chance to speak to everyone in attendance. There were well over a hundred people there, ranging from active duty military members, veterans of several eras, and people whom he’d gotten to know through the years. It was a great sight to see the large turnout for this hero’s dinner.

After we enjoyed the food and socializing with the other branches of service, it came time for Williams’ remarks on the event.

He had a strong, yet kind demeanor when he spoke to the crowd, which can take some for surprise seeing he is 93 years young. Williams began his speech with words of admiration for everyone who attended and made sure the event was a success.

Following the open remarks, he began telling a story about gold star mothers. For those who may not know, gold star families are individuals who lost a family member during war. Williams then opened up about his advocacy for mothers who have lost their sons and daughters.

“I was at a gold star event speaking to mothers on the loss and trials of losing a loved one,” said Williams. “That was when I noticed a gentleman standing in the back of the room with his head held low. I approached him at the end of the event and asked if he was alright, but he looked up at me and said ‘What about the dads?’ But I never stopped to think about the fathers of our war heroes. From then on, I made it my goal and duty to be the voice for gold star families as a whole.”

The story had instantly made me tear up and I was not alone. The crowd applauded him as he continued to tell his story on how he dedicates his life and work to giving the gold star families the respect and honor they deserve. The more I listened to him, the more I realized just how selfless of a man he is.

Williams is the epitome of a person who dedicates their life to others. Throughout his years after receiving the Medal of Honor, he never spoke on his actions from that day in Iwo Jima. Everything in his life was about them, the gold star families.

After he ended his speech, he personally pinned an eagle on every Vietnam veteran in the room.

“Not one of you were welcomed home after the war with the dignity and respect you each deserved,” said Williams. “So I’d like to pin this eagle on you all and thank you for your service to our country.”

Each veteran stood and accepted their warm welcome to the stage, while the crowd grew with claps and cheers in unison. I was so incredibly proud of those that stood before me, for those men and women are the reason I serve to my fullest potential every day.

The entire event was so much more than I could ever hope for and gave me a story I can tell for years. I met a hero who still dedicates his life for the service of others and I can only believe that one day I can be just as humble as Mr. Hershel “Woody” Williams himself.

With a tear in his eyes he says:

“This medal is not about me, it’s about them. It’s always about them.”