The pupils of Harlem Middle School received a Veterans Day treat no other area school was privileged to have -- the presence of a Medal of Honor winner.
Retired Army Col. Jack Jacobs was the guest speaker during the Friday celebration in Harlem Middle's gym.
Jacobs told the assembled pupils, many of whom were recognized for having parents in the military, that the Medal of Honor has a relatively short history.
President Lincoln awarded the first Medal of Honor during the Civil War, Jacobs said. Though other military medals existed, none specifically recognized soldiers committing courageous acts during battle.
"President Lincoln thought it was very important to recognize bravery on the battlefield," Jacobs told the pupils.
Since the creation of the medal, about 3,500 people, most of them Civil War soldiers, have won it. Since 1918, the year World War I ended, only about 600 people have been awarded the Medal of Honor.
Jacobs is one of those men.
While serving with the 82nd Airborne in Vietnam, Jacobs and his troops were ambushed by enemy soldiers. Though suffering severe head and face wounds, Jacobs managed to pull 25 wounded soldiers to safety, said retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Perry M. Smith, who introduced Jacobs.
But Jacobs didn't discuss his own military service. Much of his speech was about other Medal of Honor winners, many of whom were featured in a video produced by the Medal of Honor Foundation and shown to the pupils during the assembly.
Mostly, Jacobs talked about Jack Lucas, who used a forged birth certificate to join the Marines at 13 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
"Think of you doing this," Jacobs told the pupils, noting that many of them were 13 years old or near it.
Eventually, Marine officials caught on to Lucas' duplicity. But before Lucas could be discharged, he managed to get a transfer onto a Naval vessel headed to Iwo Jima, the site of one of World War II's bloodiest battles.
While fighting on Iwo Jima, Lucas saved the lives of Marines sharing a foxhole with him during a grenade attack, Jacobs said.
At a time when most teens are preparing to graduate from high school, Lucas was receiving his Medal of Honor from President Truman, Jacobs said.
As the story goes, Truman whispered into Lucas' ear that he would rather be a Medal of Honor recipient than president.
Lucas responded, "OK, sir. Let's swap."
The point of the story, Jacobs said, was to enlighten students to the possibilities that await them no matter their age if they're willing to work hard for the opportunities.
Jacobs said he joined the Army at a time when "service and sacrifice" meant little to many Americans.
But it was the sacrifices and sense of service of America's military men and women that made possible the freedom Harlem Middle's pupils have today, he said.
"You can do anything you want to do, so long as it's the right thing," Jacobs said.
Following the assembly, Jacobs signed copies of his book, If Not Now, When? , as a fundraiser for the school.
Included in the book sale was Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty . In all, the school raised more than $400.
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