Brooks Kraft

DOING OUR PART

AMERICAN AIRLINES is proud to offer support to armed forces, veterans and their families through a variety of initiatives and programs.

SNOWBALL EXPRESS: Since 2001, the airline has sponsored free flights and organized special events for the children and spouses of military personnel killed. www.snowballexpress.org

SKY BALL: In October 2013, American will host this salute to military families at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Sky Ball raises millions for a slew of charitable military-support organizations.
www.skyballinfo.com

GARY SINISE FOUNDATION: American is the official airline of the actor’s philanthropic group, whose Building for America’s Bravest program helps build homes for triple and quadruple amputees. www.garysinisefoundation.org

AIR COMPASSION FOR VETERANS: This foundation provides travel accommodations to veterans for specialized medical treatment, counseling or job training. Under an employee-led program called Fuel Smart, pilots and air crews can adapt flight routes and implement viable suggestions from employees to find other ways to conserve fuel; a portion of the savings is donated to the foundation. www.aircompassionforveterans.org

Standing before the podium at the Four Seasons Hotel Washington, D.C., Master Sgt. Christian MacKenzie speaks at a Medal of Honor luncheon on the day of the flight from New York. He’s telling the crowd, full of recipients and their families, about the day he almost lost his life (see page 10).

In 2004, MacKenzie, a special-operations­ helicopter flight engineer, was in the cockpit of an MH-53 Pave Low helicopter in Iraq, changing the coordinates in the navigation system and providing guidance to the ­pilots as to their next course, when a rocket-­propelled grenade slammed into the cockpit. He and his co-pilot, both gravely wounded, set the helo down. Within minutes, an Air Force Special Operations MH-53 Pave Low helicopter from MacKenzie’s unit, also on the mission, touched down as enemies swarmed. “I heard later that we were 20 seconds away from being overrun when we boarded that helicopter,” he says. “I made it out thanks to the courage of those airmen.”

Something happens when this veteran tells his story: The 21 medal recipients quit side conversations and stop nibbling at food. They give him their full attention — heads craning for a better look, bodies leaning ­toward the speaker, eyes fixed on the podium. Two wipe moisture from their eyes when MacKenzie chokes up during his speech.

Medal of Honor recipients are living links to the nation’s past, a continuum of heroes that spans U.S. history. They try to serve as a beacon for current generations of vets who are dealing with the trauma of war. U.S. Air Force Col. (Ret.) Leo Thorsness, who received his Medal of Honor for destroying surface-to-air missile sites and protecting two downed pilots’ position from the enemy in his victorious, against-the-odds dogfight against multiple enemy MiG warplanes in Vietnam, says the current crop of veterans is under unique stress. “We only had to come back from war once,” he says. “These people have gone back and forth, time after time.”

Thorsness offers perspective to troops who are adjusting to the jarring experience of re-entering civilian life. His words carry weight after his six years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. “Don’t let the enemy beat you now that you’re home,” he says. “You have to learn how to leave the battle over there.”

Clint Romesha is one who appreciates the example previous recipients have set. He received the Medal of Honor in February for his dogged 2009 defense of an isolated outpost in Afghanistan against an attack by 300 Taliban fighters. “To listen to their stories and watch their demeanor, it’s really humbling and awe-inspiring to see the humility and grace with which they all carry themselves,” he says. “And then to get the advice of what they have experienced, seen and done over the years — it’s a treasure trove of great knowledge to be passed on.”

He recalls the first time he met Crandall. “He pointed at the medal on my neck and said, ‘That’s easy to explain. Try explaining this one,’ and he pulled out a Good Conduct Medal,” Romesha recalls. The Good Conduct Medal is awarded to any active-duty military members who complete three consecutive years of “exemplary behavior, efficiency and fidelity in active federal military service” without any infractions. “He told me you get [the Medal of Honor] because of unfortunate events, but you get the Good Conduct Medal because you did the right thing every day,” Romesha says. “To see that immediate perspective, presented that way from one of your heroes, was almost unbelievable.”