HOLIDAY — Retired Navy Seal Lt. Thomas Norris arrived to a hero’s welcome at Paul R. Smith Middle School.
The school band burst into a lively rendition of Anchors Away. Cheerleaders shook pom poms and flashed big smiles as Norris moved through the thrall, shaking hands with school administrators and student government leaders.
“I didn’t expect all this,” Norris said, with a slight smile.
It’s not every day that a Medal of Honor recipient comes to visit. The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest and rarest decoration for members of the U.S. military.
“I think that it is definitely really cool,” said Tori Albright, 13, who was holding one end of a welcome banner bearing the American flag and student signatures and well-wishes. “We have a lot of kids involved in this. It shows not only our school spirit, but our patriotic spirit.”
“It’s really an honor to play for someone who did something of such great importance,” said percussion player Elijah Peralta, 13.
Norris, 75, was part of the largest gathering of recipients since the 1970s to attend the annual Medal of Honor convention, held last week in Tampa, according to the The Military Times, with 46 of the 70 living medal honorees attending. Several recipients visited area schools in coordination with the Medal of Honor Foundation’s character curriculum program.
Eight Pasco County schools hosted Medal of Honor recipients, chosen for their commitment in exemplifying character traits embodied by the medal — courage, sacrifice, patriotism, citizenship, commitment and integrity, according to Trevor Ropollo, a spokesperson with Pasco County schools. Other schools included Deer Park Elementary, Centennial Middle, Pine View Middle, Land O’ Lakes High, Charles S. Rushe Middle, Hudson High and Wiregrass Ranch High
Paul R. Smith Middle School was named for a Medal of Honor recipient.
Sgt. First Class Paul Ray Smith, who graduated from Tampa Bay Technical High and lived in Holiday, received the Medal of Honor posthumously in 2005. According to the award citation, he “distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with an armed enemy near Baghdad International Airport, Baghdad, Iraq on 4 April 2003.” The school was named after him in 2006.
Many students were not born then, though some had learned about Smith and other recipients through character lessons held throughout the year.
“The goal of all this was to make the connection with the Medal of Honor recipient who is visiting us with the school’s namesake,” said assistant principal, Jennifer Bermudez, adding that three teachers attended curriculum training by the Medal of Honor Foundation.
Norris’ visit enhanced those lessons. He spoke with students about his service during the Vietnam conflict and his efforts leading a rescue mission to recover a pilot who was shot down by the North Vietnamese.
His heroics earned him the Medal of Honor, something he said still leads him to ask, “Why me?” because there were a lot of deserving people.
He shared a favored quote by coach John Wooden: “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”
He spoke of perseverance in the face of adversity, and of the duty to serve.
“Life is a series of challenges," he said, "but you can achieve and become what you want. ... Every American should give back to this country in some way — at least a couple of years of your life.”
Norris also met with faculty members before heading to lunch with the Tampa Bay Lightning. There, he shared the duty that comes to those who are honored to wear it around their neck.
“(The Medal of Honor) opens a lot of doors, but you have a responsibility,” he said, as his eyes welled up. "You can’t tarnish that.”
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