I am extremely fortunate to have had the opportunities and experiences available to me since receiving the Medal of Honor on June 19, 2014. From David Letterman to throwing the first pitch at Major League games to skydiving with the Red Bull team and being a part of a Starbucks commercial, I am truly thankful.
I often get asked the seemingly simple question, “What is it like to be a Medal of Honor recipient?” My response, though, is deep and difficult to answer.
The past four years have been fast-paced and surreal — to say the least. At the time, I was a sophomore at the University of South Carolina when I received the call from President Barack Obama.
About a week before I was given the exact date and time the President would be calling me. I knew this would be a special moment in my life and I wanted my family there to experience it with me. I left class that morning and drove the 30 minutes to my family home to meet my parents and brothers who had taken off work and been pulled out of school. In the minutes before the call, my brothers were guessing what the surprise would be and excitedly hoped for a new family dog.
The phone rang. I was greeted by a stern female voice confirming who I was, making a brief introduction and then turning the call over to the President of the United States.
He informed me that, based upon a recommendation from the Secretary of Defense, he was honored to award me the Medal of Honor. In that brief moment in my family’s living room my life changed forever. I was about to become the youngest living Medal of Honor recipient.
After the call ended I hung up and went back to class.
It’s difficult to describe what happened when the news broke. It was almost bizarre. I hadn’t changed overnight — but the world around me had.
Thankfully, I had an incredible team of Marines who had worked for months to prepare my family and me for this moment. It was overwhelming as voicemails from friends and family were replaced with story-hungry reporters and people claiming to be my ‘long-lost’ cousins.
After Psychology class one day I turned my phone on to more than 250,000 new Instagram followers — in just 50-minutes.
Every day since the announcement has been filled with amazing, tough and life-changing experiences. I have learned a lot about myself, those around me, the crazy world we live in and, most importantly, who I am as a Medal of Honor recipient. I am not defined by the Medal. Being awarded the Medal of Honor is one of many things in my life that have helped shape and contribute to who I am today.
When people ask what it’s like to be a recipient or to have the Medal draped around my neck, my answer is “heavy.”
I am so thankful for the platform being a recipient has given me. I am able to connect with those who are struggling physically, mentally and emotionally. I am able to find comfort in the fact that my story and the stories of those who fought beside me will never be forgotten.
The Medal represents all who have raised their right hand and sworn to give their life, if called upon, for their country. It represents those who never made it home to receive the thanks and recognition they deserve. Those who charged the beaches in World War II, froze while fighting in Korea, bled out across the lush fields of Vietnam and those who never made it home because of another deadly blast in the battlefields of Iraq or Afghanistan. Those who were tortured for years in prisoner of war camps and those who still rest in distant lands forever remaining ‘missing in action.’ The Medal represents the parents, husbands, wives and loved ones who have heard the dreaded knock on their front doors to find a telegram or service member delivering the unbearable news. It represents the children who will wake up every day without their brave mother or father making them breakfast or sending them off to school because they did what so few could.
This is where the true weight of the Medal is carried.
Being a Medal of Honor recipient is a beautiful burden — but one I am honored to carry.