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This Day in History: James H. Monroe’s bravery in Vietnam

On this day in 1944, a future Medal of Honor recipient is born. Exactly 24 years later, James H. Monroe was awarded the Medal on what would have been his birthday!   Unfortunately, Monroe never lived to see the day. Instead, his family received the Medal on his behalf.

Did you know that we have at least one Medal recipient with the same name as a United States President? When a middle school in Wheaton was named for Pfc. Monroe, the school staff wanted to make sure there was no confusion.

Monroe Middle School’s namesake is a selfless young soldier who fought in Vietnam, not the former President.

“When you walk in the building, it goes without saying you know who the school is named for,” the school principal told a local newspaper a few years ago. “That is actually an example of a selfless act, and we try to incorporate it in any way we can.”

Monroe was a graduate of Washington and Lee University who’d been drafted to serve in Vietnam. Despite being drafted, he was ready to serve. In fact, his best friend remembers him as “gung ho.” He was “very upbeat, and at that time the war wasn’t as unpopular as it became, and he was doing okay with that.”

Monroe had been serving there for only four short months when tragedy hit.

His platoon had been deployed on a night ambush when the soldiers were hit with a grenade attack. Small arms fire was heavy, but Pfc. Monroe crawled through the fire to the first foxhole that had been hit. He was a medic, and it was up to him to help. Unfortunately, all the soldiers in that foxhole had already been killed. Monroe continued on. Others were calling for help.

When he arrived at the platoon sergeant’s position, he found that the radio operator there was badly injured. As he administered aid, he saw a live grenade fall directly in front of the position. “He shouted a warning to all those nearby,” his Medal citation describes, “pushed the wounded radio operator and the platoon sergeant to one side, and lunged forward to smother the grenade’s blast with his body.”

Needless to say, Pfc. Monroe didn’t survive. However, he is credited with saving the lives of at least two men and preventing serious injury to several others.

Monroe was then only 22 years old.

Interestingly, the other James Monroe—our fifth President—also nearly lost his life fighting as a soldier in the American Revolution. The future President was badly wounded and nearly killed during George Washington’s famous Christmas-time attack on Trenton. He was then only 18 years old.

The latter Monroe has gotten all sorts of attention in history textbooks because he was elected President. The former Monroe has been all but forgotten by the same textbooks.

And yet both gave their all when called upon by their country to do so.

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