TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Lightning hosted 46 of the 70 living Medal of Honor recipients on Wednesday night, saluting the armed forces veterans before the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Amalie Arena.
The recipients, donning their medals and customized black Lightning jerseys, appeared at center ice during the national anthem. Corporal Hershel W. “Woody” Williams, a 96-year-old World War II veteran of the United States Marine Corps, participated in the ceremonial puck drop with Lightning captain Steven Stamkos and Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. Williams, the the lone World War II veteran present on Wednesday night, received the medal for his service against Japanese forces at Iwo Jima.
The 46 attendees include nine veterans from the War on Terrorism, 34 from the Vietnam War, two from the Korean War and one from World War II.
“These are the nations truest heroes from the battlefield” said Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation President and CEO Karl Horst. “The city of Tampa have been wonderful hosts.”
The Medal of Honor Society hosts an annual convention for recipients, and this year’s event is being held in the Tampa Bay area. When Lightning owner Jeff Vinik first heard from the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation, he quickly jumped at the chance to host the armed service veterans.
“What these gentlemen have accomplished and what they’ve given to our country is unbelievable,” Vinik said. “This isn’t just the Lightning and Amalie Arena hosting these heroes here. This is the entire community who’s made them feel at home.”
Vinik, who has owned the Lightning since 2010, said Wednesday night’s pregame festivities were a highlight of his ownership tenure.
“This is my favorite moment since being an owner here,” Vinik said. “When we win the Stanley Cup, that moment will be right up with this moment.”
Gary Beikirch, a 72-year-old veteran of the Vietnam War and 1973 Medal of Honor recipient, is very familiar with the Tampa Bay community. The U.S. Army veteran has participated in two ceremonial puck drops at Lightning games, and he regularly visits schools in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties to talk to students about his experiences.
“To be together is a chance to be reaffirmed, inspired and encouraged to keep on doing what we’re doing,” Beikirch said. “Whenever we come to a community like Tampa, the love we receive from the community just reaffirms why we did what we did."
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Beikirch earned his medal moving “unhesitatingly through the withering enemy fire to his fallen comrades,” according to his medal citation. But Beikirch, like other medal of honor recipients, chose not to talk about heroics but about the lessons learned. After his military service, Beikirch spent 33 years as a middle school counselor.
“What I try to do is share a message that each of us were created for a purpose, we have a reason to live,” Beikirch told Jeremy Roenick during the NBC Sports Network broadcast. "If we can help somebody find that reason of why I am here, what that will do is provide motivation, inspiration — it will provide a hope for you, and all of us need a hope to go on living.”