Under a sky as pale blue as the ribbon bearing the Medal of Honor around Col. Don “Doc” Ballard’s neck, two dozen men in military uniforms from historic American wars gathered at the chilly Forest Hill Cemetery Sunday to bring attention to this week’s celebration of National Medal of Honor Day.
Ballard earned our country’s most prestigious military honor on May 16, 1968, when as a Navy corpsman he threw himself on an enemy grenade tossed at the wounded Marines he was treating during a firefight in Quang Tri province in what was South Vietnam.
“We do what is instinctive,” he said. “We were all going to die, and I was the only one capable of doing something. I’m not suicidal, I had a wife and kids. You’re either honored or you’re killed.”
Fortunately, the grenade tossed by the North Vietnamese soldier was a dud, and Ballard, who now lives in Grain Valley, went on to save seven lives that day. He was credited with saving 79 men during the war.
According to his Medal of Honor citation: “Ballard’s heroic actions and selfless concern for the welfare of his companions served to inspire all who observed him and prevented possible injury or death to his fellow Marines.”
The 68-year-old Ballard came out Sunday to salute the volunteers at Forest Lawn who were dressed in uniforms from the Revolutionary War, War of 1812 and Civil War. He observed of his heroics decades ago, “I wanted to get my buddies home. It was protecting each other, getting us all out and doing the best job for each other. … There is a bonding and a brotherhood you’ll never understand.”
There are 34 Medal of Honor recipients buried in the Kansas City metropolitan area. Nationwide, more than 3,400 military personnel have been honored with the medal.
On Sunday, for the fourth year, several groups selected a recipient to recognize. Pvt. John Henry Ricksecker of the Union Army was honored for valor at the Battle of Franklin, Tenn., on Nov. 30, 1864.
About 50 people, some of the women wearing period clothing, watched as a color guard of five men in their historical uniforms marched to a military drum cadence and stopped near Ricksecker’s granite tombstone.
Ballard, who later joined the Kansas National Guard medical service corps and retired as a colonel, thanked the audience for educating people, particularly school kids, about National Medal of Honor Day, which is celebrated nationwide every March 25.
The master of ceremonies was Dale Crandell, who wore Union colors of the First Missouri State Militia. His ancestor Lt. Samuel Crandell fought for the Union in Kentucky. Crandell noted that Ricksecker was honored for capturing the flag of a Confederate artillery unit during the Battle of Franklin. While it may not sound like much today, he noted, in 1864 it represented the defeat of the enemy.
Several men in Revolutionary War uniforms fired their muskets three times to honor Ricksecker.
A century after Ricksecker’s war, the brotherhood of combat was felt in Vietnam.
“It’s always been about educating the young,” Ballard said, “paying respect to veterans and knowing how we got here, where we came from and who paid the price for our freedom.”