I open the door to the FAIR school and the first person I see is Tom Kelley. My nerves collide with tremendous excitement as I realize I actually get to meet a Medal of Honor recipient. I catch the eyes of the Chairwoman and she begins to walk Tom Kelley over to me. I can’t help but focus solely on him; everything around me goes into a blur. I feel that a handshake does not suffice for my overwhelming emotions, so I lay my other hand on top of his in hopes that it will convey the utter honor I feel meeting him. His creased smile and warm hands comfort me and put me at ease. I have seen videos and read stories about him, but to finally meet him in person makes it all so real.
In that split second, a scene of Tom flashes across my mind. He’s reaching, not for my hand to shake, but for his brother. Whether it is grabbing the helm to maneuver himself between his men and enemy fire, shaking the hands of his sailors after a long mission at sea or folding them in humble prayer for our country, I know those hands have done incredible and unexplainable things. Hands that shaped history are now shaking my own.
An hour goes by and, as I’m wandering around the building tying up loose ends before the press conference starts, I walk past a room with a handful of middle school students leaning forward in their chairs and Tom Kelley standing in front of them. I peek my head around the doorframe and find a little window between two of the news station cameras to watch the interaction. All eyes are locked on Tom as he tells first-hand accounts of bravery and sacrifice that, prior to this, the students have only read about.
In that moment I feel chills run down my body. A history book character is literally standing right in front of these students, telling stories and answering their questions. Compelling is too small a word to describe what it is like to watch the younger generation find fascination in the Medal of Honor.
Before I had the opportunity to meet Tom Kelley I heard from multiple people, multiple times, that the recipients are incredibly humble and do not believe they did anything that any one of their teammates would not have done in the same circumstance. To the recipients, the Medal of Honor is not an award; it is a responsibility. It is not something that they wear for themselves or because they even think they deserve it. The recipients wear their Medals as a way to honor their teammates, fallen servicemen and women, and thousands of other military members who have served our country and have not been recognized for their heroic actions.
“We are just ordinary people put into extraordinary circumstances who decided to do the right thing,” said Tom Kelley, in between bites of his plain hamburger. Sitting across the table from him at a hole in the wall diner, having regular conversation, I couldn’t rest my smile. It was in that moment that I truly believed that I was, as an ordinary person, capable of extraordinary things. He and his fellow recipients truly are the definition of humble heroes.