TAMPA, Fla. — Gary Littrell remembers his brief, yet honorable few seconds with then-President Richard Nixon.
“Our award was in between Watergate and goodbye,” the St. Pete Beach resident recalled. “He came into the room real fast, pinned the medal on the nine of us real fast, and out the door he went.”
It was the moment he received the Medal of Honor – the highest honor a servicemember-- can receive. It was the crowning moment of a military career that was meant to be from the start.
“I could not wait until I was the legal age to join the military,” said Littrell, who rose to the rank of Sergeant Major during his 22 years in the U.S. Army. “When I was nine years old my uncle took me down to Fort Campbell. I watched the paratroopers jump out of airplanes and I thought that was the neatest thing I’d ever seen.”
Littrell enlisted in 1961. His service took him to California for basic training to Fort Benning, among other stops, Okinawa and Vietnam, and ended after a stint in Colorado Springs with a second career with Veterans Administration in Tampa.
Littrell is credited with multiple honors but the Medal of Honor will always be special to him.
“The Medal of Honor is the highest award that can be awarded to any service member,” he explained from the patio of the Tampa Marriott Water Street Monday morning, site of this week’s Medal of Honor Convention. “We are a band of brothers and our mission, and the reason we formed a society, is to look out for each other.”
This week’s convention is the largest gathering of Medal recipients since the 1970s. Only 70 people on the planet can say they’ve been given the nation’s highest honor. The Medal of Honor was created by Abraham Lincoln in 1861. It’s the military’s rarest decoration, bestowed by the President of the United States, in the name of Congress, upon members of the United States Armed Forces who distinguish themselves through “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against the enemy of the United States”.
Only 3,507 individuals have received the Medal. Half of those were given posthumously.
Littrell is quasi-hosting the convention, being that he lives just a few miles away. In all, 46 of the 70 living recipients will participate in week-long festivities which include school visits, banquets and memorial services. Littrell wore his Medal around his neck with pride as he stepped in front of assembled media to kick off the weeks’ events.
“This Medal represents them,” he said of the fellow service members he lost while in Vietnam. “The ones who died and the ones who got out. I’m just the caretaker of it and I wear it on their behalf.”
Only one WWII-era recipient will be in attendance this week. Two from Korea and nine from Afghanistan or Iraq are in town. The rest of the recipients served in Vietnam.