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This Day in History: The first Sioux to receive the Medal of Honor

On this day in 1982, U.S. Army Master Sergeant Woodrow “Woody” Keeble passes away. More than 25 years later, he would finally be recognized with the Medal of Honor. He was the first Sioux to receive the medal.

The honor had been a long time coming.

When World War II broke out, Keeble was being recruited for a major league baseball team, but that didn’t stop him from serving. He had already joined the National Guard and would serve in the war as an infantryman. In one notable engagement, he would eventually receive three medals, including the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

Keeble was a big, strong guy. “The safest place to be,” one soldier later remembered, “was right next to Woody.”

After the war, Keeble returned home and became a teacher. That wouldn’t last too long, of course. When the Korean War began, Keeble was ready to serve again. Actually, he was more than ready. His commander had planned a lottery to determine who would serve on the front lines, but Keeble simply volunteered for the task.

Keeble’s reason? Simple. “Somebody had to teach those kids how to fight.”

It wasn’t long before Keeble’s company found itself engaged in an operation to seize a series of hills. The fighting was intense. The commanding officers of the other platoons in Keeble’s company were all either injured or killed. And yet the fight wasn’t over, and Keeble just kept volunteering to lead new platoons.

He was wounded so often during these days that 83 pieces of shrapnel would eventually be removed from his body. Some pieces would stay in his body for the rest of his life.

Keeble, of course, just kept fighting, despite his wounds. He was patched up by medics, but ready to go again on October 20.

On that day, the company was working to take a particularly steep hill with enemy machine gun nests positioned at the top. The casualties were staggering and one platoon was pinned down. Keeble had had enough. He took a load of grenades and launched his own attack, systematically taking out the enemy machine gun nests, one at a time. For each of the first two nests, he snuck up on the nest, then tossed a grenade in.

Unsurprisingly, the enemy soon located Keeble and began firing at him. One soldier later reported that “there were so many grenades coming down on Woody, that it looked like a flock of blackbirds.”

Keeble still continued on, taking out the third and final nest. His men were able to finish taking the hill. Keeble was finally evacuated for treatment, but not until later that evening after his men were safe. His health would never be the same again.

During his lifetime, Keeble was not awarded the Medal of Honor for these actions. He was nominated for it, but the paperwork was lost. Eventually, Keeble’s tribe and others undertook an effort to get his Distinguished Service Cross upgraded to a Medal of Honor. The effort took years because of the difficulty in tracking down lost materials and obtaining witness statements. Congress even had to approve the late Medal, but it was finally awarded on March 3, 2008.

“I deeply regret that this tribute comes decades too late,” President George W. Bush said at the time. “Woody will never hold this medal in his hands or wear it on his uniform. He will never hear a President thank him for his heroism. He will never stand here to see the pride of his friends and loved ones, as I see in their eyes now. But there are some things we can still do for him. We can tell his story, and we can honor his memory. And we can follow his lead . . . .”

Yes, we sure can. Can’t we?

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