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Veterans receive heroes’ welcome in Lincolnton

Army Staff Sgt. Joel Tavera (right), a severely wounded veteran of the Iraq War, speaks to attendees at the Medal of Honor Day held on Friday as disabled Marine Corps veteran Dale Punch assists him.

Staff Writer

Three modern-day heroes visited Lincolnton on Friday. Two were Medal of Honor recipients, Retired Army Col. Walter “Joe” Marm and Retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Patterson, and the third, Army Staff Sgt. Joel Tavera, a veteran of the Iraq War and a severely wounded warrior. Lincoln County Schools students, local veterans and others attended the event held at the James W. Warren Citizens Center. After the three spoke, there was a question and answer session and then an opportunity for autographs and pictures.

There are currently only 72 living Medal of Honor recipients. Both Marm and Peterson agreed that it was far more difficult to wear their medals than it was to receive them because of the great honor associated with the award. A total of 3,516 Medals of Honor have been issued, the first being awarded to Bernard J.D. Irwin, who was an assistant surgeon in the Army during the Civil War. Only one woman, Mary Walker, also an Army surgeon during the Civil War, has received the medal.

Marm received his Medal of Honor for valor shown during the Battle of la Drang Valley in 1965 in Vietnam. Marm spent time speaking about the book written by Joe Galloway about that battle, “We Were Soldiers Once…and Young.” Galloway was a young combat reporter and found himself embedded with the command unit of the 1st Cavalry Division in the valley during the battle. The book went on to be made into a movie in 2002.

“It was a very intense battle and I was very lucky to have lived through it,” Marm said. “As I’ve always said, God works in mysterious ways and he has a plan for all of us.”

Using a good bit of humor during his speech on Friday, Patterson, who is the only living North Carolina recipient of the Medal of Honor, distinguished himself during an assault against a North Vietnamese Army battalion in 1968. A high school dropout, Patterson told the attendees that they could accomplish anything they set their minds to. He dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Army after an argument with his girlfriend.

“She ticked me off Sunday night and I enlisted in the army the next day,” he said. “I showed her.”

To this day, Patterson can’t remember what it was that his girlfriend did but, of course, enlisting changed his life forever. He told the students in the audience that getting an education was like building a house and that they were building the foundation now. He used himself as an example of what not to do.

“It was an interesting time but I would not want to go through it again,” he said. “War is ugly and not something to look forward to. It’s not the way it’s portrayed in the books. It can be downright boring at times – then it picks up and can be frightening. I loved the Army but I hated war.”

Tavera is lucky to be alive. He was traveling with four other soldiers in a Humvee in Iraq when it received a direct hit by an enemy rocket. Three of the soldiers were killed instantly.

“It wasn’t pretty,” he said. “I was burning when I left the vehicle.”

Tavera was burnt on over 60 percent of his body, lost his sight, his right leg, part of his skull and some of his fingers. Since the accident, which he wasn’t expected to survive, he’s had over 100 surgeries and had to re-learn how to walk and talk. Today, Tavera, who currently lives in North Carolina, is a senior in college and plans to apply to work toward a graduate degree. He hunts, fishes and loves to go to NASCAR races.

“Over the years, I’ve overcome more than I thought I would,” he said. “I figure that things happen for a reason and so much more good has happened to me than bad. I enjoy the little things in life now. It’s better to live for something than to do nothing.”

During the question and answer period, a young woman asked Tavera what was the first thing that went through his head after the accident.

“I woke up and I couldn’t see anything,” he said. “I could hear my mother but she sounded far away. I felt pretty depressed – it was not the greatest place to be. I could hear people coming in and out, saying I was going to die.”

When asked if he could change anything about what happened or if he had any regrets, Tavera said that the only thing would be to have not lost his sight.

“Honestly, I’m the way I am because of what happened,” he said. “I didn’t want this to happen but it could have happened to anyone. When you sign on the line, you’re put in harm’s way whether you’re doing your job or not. I was doing my job when I was blown up. That’s part of the risk you take.”


Image courtesy of Michelle T. Bernard

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