Retired Army pilot Fred Ferguson won’t be with his comrades this week when they travel to Washington, D.C., to commemorate the first National Medal of Honor Day on March 25.
But the Chandler veteran is among just 112 people in the nation who know firsthand what the day is about.
Nearly 30 Medal of Honor recipients will meet Wednesday to commemorate the special day and thank the members of Congress who supported naming the day for those who’ve received the nation’s highest military honor.
“They are individuals who are humble to a person and unless you knew who they were and what they had done, you wouldn’t know they were a Medal of Honor recipient,” said Dave McIntyre, who sits on the board of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation, which lobbied Congress to name March 25 National Medal of Honor Day.
The foundation raises money and awareness of the sacrifices made by recipients of the Medal of Honor, which is awarded to military personnel who have committed acts of valor against an enemy force.
Ferguson, who received his medal in late 1969 from President Richard Nixon, was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam when he earned his honor in 1968 in the battle for Hue during the Tet Offensive. While returning from a mission, he heard of another helicopter shot down in enemy territory nearby.
“I did not want to leave five of my fellow soldiers to the sways of the North Vietnamese, so I asked my crew if they would accompany me on an attempt to rescue,” he said.
They agreed and the group planned a mission that ultimately cost the unit four helicopters, but saved the five survivors from the crash.
The men knew the dangers of flying into the intense antiaircraft fire in the area — they were even warned not to go. Today, the 67-year-old retiree describes the experience in a dry, confident pilot’s tone: “It was interesting.”
It wasn’t until he arrived at the White House several months later that things got “scary.”
He still remembers the discomfort of being a chief warrant officer waiting for Nixon in the Oval Office with members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the president’s Cabinet.
“(Nixon) came in a little late and said, ‘I apologize for being late, but I’m having some trouble with the Supreme Court,’ ” Ferguson said.
Today, Ferguson’s glad to have a day to honor Medal of Honor recipients — not so much for himself, but for the families of soldiers and sailors who were not around to actually receive a medal.
“Of course, the vast majority of recipients of the Medal of Honor don’t live to receive it,” he said.
Ferguson won’t be at Wednesday’s ceremony.
“I don’t go back East unless it’s absolutely necessary,” he said.
That’s because he refuses to go through increased security procedures that are now part of commercial air travel.
“I’ve spent 37 years of my life in uniform,” Ferguson said. “I’m a decorated combat veteran. If George Bush can’t trust me with my Zippo and my pocketknife on an airplane, I ain’t going.”