HOLLAND >> Students and staff at the Holland Middle School have joined a growing number of people calling on the nation to award Newtown resident Sergeant Richard W. Gresko the Medal of Honor.
Representing the school’s students and staff, eighth grader Taylor Smith presented a petition on May 29 containing 500-plus names to U.S. Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick asking that Gresko be awarded the honor.
Fitzpatrick, who was at the school to speak to eighth grade students about the national debt, accepted the petition and promised the kids and Gresko he would fight for the recognition.
On March 11, 1970, while serving in Vietnam with the Headquarters and Service Company, Third Battalion, Fifth Marine Division, Sergeant (then Lance Corporal) Gresko was part of an element that ambushed a Viet Cong unit attempting to enter a village.
During the ensuing fight, Gresko observed an enemy hand grenade land near his position. With complete disregard for his own personal safety and fully aware of the dangers, he threw himself on top of the grenade, absorbing most of the blast fragments with his own body in order to protect his men from certain injury and death.
Although painfully wounded, Gresko continued to direct his men’s actions until the squad made its sweep.
For his actions, the Philadelphia native received the Navy Cross in 1976, the second-highest award for valor a Marine can earn.
But family members, friends, other Marine veterans, and now the students and staff at the Holland Middle School, are asking the nation’s leaders to award Gresko America’s highest military honor.
Gresko supporters point to numerous other cases where the Medal of Honor has been awarded to members of the military who covered a grenade with their bodies to shield their comrades from harm.
One Marine, just a few miles from Gresko’s unit, also dove on a grenade on the very same night. Like Gresko, Gunnery Sgt. Allan Jay Kellogg Jr. survived the ordeal. Kellogg received the Medal of Honor from President Richard Nixon in 1973.
And they say that not only did Gresko leap on the grenade, he continued to fight and to direct his men despite suffering grievous wounds to his torso and his legs.
“By his bold and heroic action on behalf of his fellow Marines, Sergeant Gresko reflected great credit upon himself and the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service,” reads the Holland Middle School petition. “The petitioners therefore request that Sergeant Richard W. Gresko receive the highest honor this great nation can award, the Medal of Honor.”
Gresko, who was on hand to witness the petition being presented to Congressman Fitzpatrick, received a standing ovation from the eighth grade students assembled in the auditorium.
In 2009, Gresko told the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers that the ongoing effort of so many on his behalf “is very, very humbling,” words he used again at the Holland Middle School presentation.
“Sometimes your heart is up in your throat, that these guys are doing that for me,” he had told his Union brothers. “If I would get the medal ... it’s not for Rich Gresko; it’s for all those who served. Other people gave so much.”
Holland teacher Joseph Fabrizio, along with librarians Jana Bovino and Barb Tiger, facilitated the Holland petition drive encouraging students to read about Gresko and consider signing.
About 15 years ago, Fabrizio started a Memorial Day project which encouraged students to write letters to the nation’s Medal of Honor recipients thanking them for their service. Through that process, he said the students learned of the various acts of heroism and sacrifice that led to the awards.
“Ritchie did the same thing that many of the Medal of Honor recipients did that we learned about,” said Fabrizio who met Gresko by chance at the gym and eventually learned of his heroics. “There are guys who did exactly the same thing, if not less, than what Mr. Gresko did to save the lives of fellow Marines in Vietnam.”
Fabrizio has invited Gresko to speak to his students on numerous occasions about his service in Vietnam and his heroic actions.
“When he shows them the pill box containing pieces of schrapnel pulled out of his body and then they find out there’s still about eight left in his body, there are gasps,” said Fabrizio.
“He has gone through excruciating circumstances,” Fabrizio added. “He was told he would never walk again and would never have children. He is walking and he has three daughters. But he gives them a speech on patriotism that they will never forget. He tells them be sure you vote, be sure you pay your taxes and be sure you listen to your President.”
In accepting the petition, Congressman Fitzpatrick noted that “it’s not the athletes, the super stars or the super heroes, but people like Ritchie who are the true heroes. If you want to talk about courage, jumping on a grenade to protect the lives of your fellow servicemen and women is what courage is all about. Does it get any braver than that? He is a true hero.”
Fitzpatrick said he will be entering the petition into the Congressional Record during remarks on the House floor “to let my colleagues and the administration know what the kids of Bucks County think about this man and that he deserves this Medal of Honor. And I plan on advocating for it as you deserve,” he told Gresko.
Principal Rich Hollahan thanked Gresko for joining the students for the afternoon, “but most importantly for your service. We appreciate the freedom you helped provide for us.”
In concluding the brief presentation, Fitzpatrick presented Hollahan with a flag flown over the U.S. Capitol in honor of the students attending Holland Middle School and their school leadership.