On Thursday the United States Exercise Tiger Foundation in conjunction with the U.S. Air Force honored three junior ROTC cadets who died in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida.
Officers from the 358th Fighter Squadron based at Whiteman Air Force Base will transport the three Medals of Combat Valor awarded at the ceremony from Missouri to the high school in Parkland, Florida, under U.S. Air Force honor guard escort. This is the first time any junior ROTC cadet has received a Medal of Combat Valor.
"Operation Intrepid Eagle, the Medals of Valor Flight to Florida" honors cadets Peter Wang, Alaina Petty and Martin Duque.
United States Exercise Tiger Foundation, or USTF, is a military awards foundation. USTF national executive director Susan Haines and Master Sgt. Andrew Van Houten gave speeches before the medals, flags and citation plaques were packaged.
A handful of attendees stood in silence as an Air Force member carried the 40-pound box out of the Stephens building, where the event took place, to be transported to the junior ROTC unit in Florida.
Van Houten said he understands the gravity of this event from both personal and parental perspectives. Van Houten discussed his opportunity to present the medals with his son, who is currently a member of junior ROTC. "To see concern and tears begin to fill up in his eyes for the lost cadets further cemented the fact that I needed to be here and I needed to do this in person," Van Houten said at the event. "I'm extremely proud to know that he's a part of a program like that."
During the event, Haines read a portion of a plaque. "Cadet Wang met evil in the hallway in his Florida high school," she read. "He helped students get into a classroom to escape the horror of being shot and killed. He held open a door and took in the last moments of his young life."
Petty and Duque also died in uniform while helping their fellow students. "But this wasn't Iraq or Afghanistan; it was their own high school and the halls now filled with smoke and death instead of students going to and fro their classes or athletic practices," Haines read from the plaque. "And in that horror of February 14, three U.S. Army Junior ROTC cadets rose to face an enemy."
Nothing's going to fully prepare you for a moment of crisis, Van Houten said, "but there is a reason why they train us and we retrain and we retrain and we retrain all the time because there should be no second guessing at that point."
"But the fact that their program was that solid that those cadets, their training kicked in that quick, goes right back to the point I made earlier that they were willing to lay down their lives for and they knew what they needed to do," Van Houten said. "They felt that they had a duty at that point, and they probably didn't even think about it; it became automatic."
Columbia may be over a thousand miles from Parkland, but community purpose is mutual. "The state of Missouri has always been pro-military with involvement and Forts Whiteman and Leonard Wood," said John McClane, a local volunteer director for the USTF who attended the event. "We've always had a special place in our heart for honoring our service personnel."
While McClane never personally served, military service still hits close to home. His brothers served in the Navy, and his wife came from an active military family.
For McClane, these teenaged cadets' actions go beyond duty. "I thought of the biblical passage that says no greater love than this that a man lay down his life for another," he said. "This was certainly exemplified by these young (cadets)."
"What a reality check that us older folks are being shown by younger people how to sacrifice their lives at the level the junior ROTC displays," McClane said. "Why not use this as an impetus to honor our folks young and old while they’re alive?"
The medals to be delivered during "Operation Intrepid Eagle, the Medals of Valor Flight to Florida" are expected to arrive in Florida in a week, though an exact date was unavailable, according Van Houten. "Operation Intrepid Eagle" refers to Florida high school’s junior ROTC chapter name, Eagle Battalion.
Supervising editor is Gary Garrison.