TAMPA — Gary Littrell knew he wanted to join the U.S. Army when he was 9-years-old. He was searching for a family he didn’t have.
Seventeen years and four heroic nights later, Littrell found his brothers within the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, the small group of warriors who have received the nation’s highest award for military valor.
This year, the St. Petersburg Beach resident who earned his medal in Vietnam is serving as one of the local hosts for the 2019 Medal of Honor Convention that is expected to bring 46 of his brethren to Tampa Bay starting Tuesday.
The week-long celebration marks the largest gathering of living recipients in recent years. Since the medal’s creation in 1861 by President Abraham Lincoln, about 3,500 individuals have received the honor, half posthumously.
Today only 70 recipients are still alive, said Medal of Honor Society president Drew Dix, an Army veteran who received his medal for rescuing numerous civilians during the Vietnam War as well as capturing several Viet Cong soldiers.
The society’s membership has been shrinking in recent years as World War II-era recipients pass away. The changing nature of war, now often fought at a distance with missiles and planes, has also contributed to a decline in recipients, Dix said.
The thinning ranks is a big reason members commit themselves to ensuring the health and well-being of the brothers that remain.
“We are a family and we will stick by each other to the end,” Dix said.
He noted that the society, which began in 1958, grew out of a need for medal recipients to connect with those who shared the same burdens. Together, they could come to terms with what it means to earn the nation’s highest military honor on some of the worst days of their lives.
“When we go through life-changing experiences like we all did on the battlefield, when you go back to your communities you deal with that differently,” Dix said.
Littrell’s actions in Vietnam exposed him to significant loss.
Between April 4 and April 8, 1970, Littrell, an Army Sergeant First Class, worked tirelessly under concentrated enemy fire to bolster his battalion defending a hill near Dak Seang.
He went up the hill with 473 Vietnamese rangers and 4 Americans. He left with 43 walking wounded.
“The time on the hill wasn’t a pleasant time,” Littrell said.
After receiving the medal, Littrell stored it in his top dresser drawer and returned to active duty for a total of 22 years of military service, followed by years as a patient advocate at the James A Haley Veterans’ Hospital.
Today he wears the medal more often, traveling at least 20 days each month to visit elementary, middle and high schools across the country as part of the Society’s Character Development Program.
The Medal of Honor Foundation, which financially supports the veteran society, began its career development initiative to add to the medal recipients’ legacy.
The program offers free training to teachers and coordinates medal recipient visits to schools. It’s all in the name of promoting the six values embodied by the Medal of Honor: courage, sacrifice, patriotism, citizenship, commitment and integrity.
Holly Hartman, a 7th grade civics teacher at Farnell Middle School in Tampa, participated in the training earlier this year, joining thousands of Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco County faculty.
She found the program lesson guides helpful in connecting with her students. One of the assignments she gave out asked students to write about an obstacle they faced and how they overcame it with the medal’s values.
Responses ranged from dealing with their parents’ divorce to realizing they need tutoring for a subject.
Lessons from the program have also helped expose students to harsher realities they may not be aware of due to their more privileged lives, Hartman said.
“It’s so important for these kids to see the bigger picture,” she said.
As part of this year’s Medal of Honor Convention, attending recipients will visit local schools and be treated to tours across Tampa.
Much of the festivities will be possible thanks to Jeff Vinik and his Tampa Bay Lightning, which will honor the recipients at a game Wednesday and plays the role of presenting sponsor this year. More than 300 local volunteers also will be pitching in.
“This whole region goes to bat when you’re talking about the military,” Vinik said.
As Littrell waits to welcome his visiting brothers, he recognizes this may be his last time serving as a convention leader.
It’s why he hopes for the best.
“I guarantee you the recipients are going to leave Tampa saying this has been the best convention we’ve had in a long time,” he said.