Some standing upright, others in wheelchairs, recipients of the Medal of Honor — the country’s highest, and rarest, military decoration — kicked off their annual convention Wednesday with a flag-festooned, salute-centric ceremony at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“You are our nation’s greatest heroes,” Gov. Mark Dayton said in welcoming the recipients to the Twin Cities.
For those who have received the honor, the convention is designed to be more than a time for retelling old war stories and accepting thanks for their service.
Created in 1861 by President Abraham Lincoln, the medal has been awarded to fewer than 3,500 individuals, many posthumously.
The Medal of Honor Society is made up of all 77 living Medal of Honor recipients. Each year the society members gather at a different host city for their annual convention. Forty-one of the recipients are scheduled to show up for the convention this week.
“The freedoms we treasure, the pleasures we enjoy and the relative safety of the lives we live do not come to us automatically; nor are they guaranteed to last,” Dayton told medal recipients at the opening ceremony Wednesday. “They must be won and then they must be protected. We honor you and we thank you for being our protectors.”
Several years ago, the society began a program that emphasizes character development and is targeted toward high school students. The Character Development Program, designed to promote courage, commitment, integrity, citizenship, sacrifice and patriotism, began as a pilot project in Erie, Pa., and has spread to more than 40 states. It includes a program at elementary schools in Minnesota.
“We wanted to leave a legacy behind — not a memorial, not a monument, not a building, but a legacy that can be passed on to future generations about what the Medal of Honor is about: service above self, loyalty, integrity, patriotism,” said Tom Kelley, Medal of Honor Society president and Vietnam veteran.
Recipients are scheduled to visit 14 schools during the five days of the convention to call attention to the program.
There have been 72 medal recipients from Minnesota. One is still living: Vietnam veteran Leo Thorsness, from Walnut Grove.
On Thursday, his hometown will honor Thorsness, a fighter pilot in the Air Force, by hosting a visit at Walnut Grove Elementary School and dedicating a city park in his name.
Also on Thursday, Columbia Heights Public Schools will honor recipient and alumnus Marine Private First Class James D. LaBelle by dedicating a memorial site in his name. LaBelle died at Iwo Jima in 1945 and was presented the medal posthumously.
Given its patriotic nature, the convention doesn’t lack for support. More than 90 convention sponsors have signed on, including UnitedHealthcare, Target and American Airlines. Stanley Hubbard, chairman and CEO of locally owned Hubbard Broadcasting, is scheduled to receive the Distinguished Citizen Award at a gala on Saturday.
Business executives, including some from the Minnesota Vikings, had featured speaking roles at Wednesday’s opening ceremony. At times, corporate logos competed with flags at the event, as advertisements for Mystic Lake, Hy-Vee and Pentair rotated around the new stadium.
“Just like the military, the Twin Cities business community stepped up to support something larger than themselves,” said Dr. John Mateczun, president of UnitedHealthcare Military & Veterans, the convention’s presenting sponsor.
M.A. Mortenson, chairman of Mortenson Construction, which built the stadium, started his speech by taking the opportunity to plug the surroundings.
“Wow, what a magnificent stadium,” he said. “Oh, by golly, you’d think we may have something to do with it.”