Hershel Woodrow Woody Williams: Medal of Honor Recipient Works to Erect Monuments for Gold Star families
Hershel Woody Williams is the last surviving Medal of Honor Recipient from the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Countless articles and videos tell his story about how he earned the medal of honor and how he advance time and time again upon enemy pillboxes with a flamethrower to kill enemies so our American forces could advance and ultimately win WW2. Now his mission is all about honoring and paying tribute to Gold Star Families for their sacrifice by erecting memorial monuments in their honor across the country. So far he has erected 21 monuments across 37 states and he has 47 more in progress. Listen in with Barb Allen as Woody shares his vision.
They are referred to as “The Greatest Generation,” and they do indeed set the bar high for the rest of us. In my work as a Veterans Specialist I occasionally have the opportunity to meet with WWII veterans, and I am hard pressed to describe what it’s like to be hearing history told firsthand.
I had the immense pleasure of meeting WWII, Medal of Honor Recipient Hershel Woodrow “Woody” Williams.
This past December, Medal of Honor Recipient Hershel “Woody” and his grandson, Brent Casey, took time out of their lives to participate in Snowball Express. My children and I had the great honor of spending time with him at various events throughout the week, and Woody then took more time to sit down with me for an interview.
His smile is quick and warm and encompasses his whole being, exuding a feel-good energy that touches everyone around him. His step is quick and purposeful, oblivious to his age or the notion that it should have any impact on his speed. He danced at the talent show and walked with us to Medieval Times. He stood at attention in the narrow confines of the aisle when the Marine Corps flag was carried past and cheered when our knight rode by. He is just plain fun to be with. And he is also a national hero.
Hershel Woody Williams is the last surviving Medal of Honor Recipient from the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Countless articles and videos tell his story about how he earned that medal, by time and time again advancing upon enemy pillboxes with a flamethrower to kill the enemies within and pave the way for American forces to advance. It’s an extraordinary story of valor and one that merits being told. But it’s not his only story.
Beyond the battlefield, Woody continued paving the way for our military and their families throughout a 33 year career as a Veterans Services Officer (VSO) with the VA. This is a complex job that requires extensive knowledge and grit, and Woody’s career encompassed the era when the VA continued to deny our Vietnam Veterans claims for illnesses related to Agent Orange. Woody was again a trailblazer, this time for VSOs like me today. And yet even that was not enough. Throughout that time he became a lay minister for his church and served as Chaplain Emeritus for the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
But wait, there’s more.
Today Hershel Woody Williams is a catalyst for another extraordinary movement – helping communities throughout the country create monuments for Gold Star Families. This effort is, “most dear to my heart,” he told me.
I had a mother at Valley Forge say to me, ‘You are the first person who has ever said anything about paying tribute to me over the loss of my son.”
For years, Woody attempted to convince the powers-that-be to erect a Gold Star Mothers monument in our nation’s capital. That battle proved to be un-winnable for this highly decorated war hero, but Woody never lost the determination that propelled him back up that hill into enemy fire, and he was not about to accept defeat here, either.
The pain families endure when they lose a family member in combat is something near and dear to Woody.
His childhood friend, whose father became a surrogate father to Woody and whose mother he also became close to, was a nose gunner on a B-24. Leonard Brown was shot down and killed in the war. He was buried somewhere in the Philippines. His parents received only a telegram that their son was missing and for years held on to the hope that he was still alive, before discovering the truth. Woody saw their pain and also experienced that loss firsthand. His brother,” …got beat up pretty bad,” serving with Patton’s third army. “He only lived a short time after we got home. I always felt he died as a result of his wounds.” But the government disagrees, and Woody still stings from its position that his brother’s death was not service connected; you won’t find his name on any monuments for WWII soldiers. When speaking with him, it is impossible to not feel the weight he still carries with such grace.
As he embarked on his career with the VA, Hershel Woody William’s thoughts repeatedly returned to his friend’s mother and other Gold Star Mothers constantly mentioned in the news. He appreciated the recognition they received but began wondering why other family members were overlooked- he can attest to the magnitude of loss felt by siblings, and he saw his friend’s father struggle with the loss, too. He realized other family members would be feeling similar losses. It bothered him but he didn’t quite know what to do about it – yet.
Still befuddled at the lack of support he received from congressional representatives, Woody’s frustration grew.
He almost gave up on ever seeing a monument in our capital to honor Gold Star Mothers or any Gold Star Family Members. That frustration accompanied him 200 miles away to a talk he gave one day.
Speaking to a group of senior citizens, Woody poured forth his passionate beliefs:
“…our responsibility as Americans, just having been born here, and having the privileges that we have and all the things that come our way simply because we’re an American, and the responsibility to do something for our country. That’s my theme.”
During that talk, Woody’s gaze wandered over the crowd, and he noticed several silver-haired ladies. On a hunch he asked if there were any Gold Star Mothers present. Quite a few hands went up. He took the time to recognize them to the crowd and thank them for their sacrifices before wrapping up his talk. The program ended, he spoke personally with attendees, and the area emptied – except for one man.
Alone in a back row sat one man, hunched over with his head in his hands. Woody cautiously approached, asking if there was anything he could do for the man. He was met with silence, as if the man hadn’t even heard him. Finally, Woody turned away to gather his things. To his surprise he saw the man approaching him, tears flowing down his cheeks. He said three words: “Dads cry too,” and turned to go.
Woody felt his heart break as he called out to the man to stay, share his story. So the man did, and Woody listened to his story of being an only child of now deceased parents. He lost his wife to cancer before their only child, a son, joined the Army. That son died in Afghanistan.
“When he told me that,” Woody thought,” How can we as a country, as a nation, as a people, not recognize that these individuals –like dads- everybody suffers when there’s a loss. Everyone grieves. “
The two hour drive home gave Woody time to reflect on that man and his story. He felt his passion resurface with a renewed determination to see these families honored. He sheepishly confessed to being “selfish” here, as his thoughts at that time began and ended with creating a monument for Gold Star Families in West Virginia, to honor the eleven thousand residents who’d lost their lives in service to our country.
Did you catch that? He was almost apologizing for “only” deciding to honor eleven thousand families at that time. This, my friend, is the kind of character that cannot be taught but when harnessed like Woody has done, shines a light that touches the darkest corners in its reach.
Timing is everything, yes? In this case the timing could not have been better, as Woody discovered plans underway for a veterans cemetery in West Virginia. He pounced on that and convinced those powers-that-be that this would be the ideal opportunity to honor Gold Star Families. Hershel Woody Williams designed the first monument, unveiled in October of 2013.
Finally, he’d accomplished his mission.
But before he could lay his pack down he was approached by a resident of another state who sought help doing a similar monument. And then another person, and another, and thus the Hershel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation was born.
To date, communities in 29 states have unveiled 13 monuments and planned for 39 more. Woody attends every groundbreaking and unveiling, save for one. Florida and Massachusetts communities planned their ceremonies on the same day. Not even Woody could have made both ceremonies, but in true style he managed to have Joint Chief of Staff General Dunford stand in for him in Massachusetts. Not a bad consolation prize.
“If I’m able I will be at every groundbreaking and every dedication,” he assured me. And I believe him.
Wouldn’t it be great if this movement continued, so that every community across this country has its own monument to honor their fallen and those families? Woody’s organization is right there to help. It will donate the first five thousand dollars to fundraising campaigns and offers templates on how to proceed. Each community designs its own monument, and sometime the materials and labor are even donated.
“As I see Gold Star Families come to dedications, and for the first time realize that their community is paying respect and honor to those we lost in military service…” his eyes may have misted up as his voice faded for a moment, overcome with emotion. “It says something about that community.”
Watch The Raw Interview Here
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