By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
March 18, 2009 - The challenge issued by a flight attendant during a recent commercial air flight seemed innocuous enough: "Name just one of the five Medal of Honor recipients from the current engagements in Afghanistan or Iraq, and get a free drink coupon." But the passengers' response – more specifically, the inability of all but just one to respond – revealed how little the average American knows about its military heroes.
Bombarded by superhero lore almost from birth, many Americans grow to revere fictional heroes as well as sports and celebrity icons. But silence descended over the cabin of a flight bound from Jacksonville, Fla., to Baltimore when the conversation turned to those who had earned the nation's highest honor for valor – even when a free cocktail hung in the balance.
Dale Shelton, an Annapolis, Md., resident who served five years as a Navy intelligence specialist, was the only passenger to press the button over his seat to beckon the attendant. Shelton's response: Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith, the first Medal of Honor recipient in the global war on terror and in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Smith received the highest military honor for valor posthumously on April 3, 2005, two years to the day after saving more than 100 soldiers in the battle for Baghdad's airport. His young son and widow accepted the award on his behalf during a solemn White House ceremony.
The flight attendant gave free drink coupons to Shelton, as well as his wife, Jean, and two other traveling companions. Then he returned to crew area to announce over the intercom that only one person had correctly answered the challenge.
This time, the attendant offered a second challenge: "Name an 'American Idol' winner." The cabin lit up like a pinball machine as 43 passengers scrambled to push their attendant call button. Passengers named various Idol winners.
The attendant announced that he wasn't going to award drink coupons for that answer, telling the passengers that "naming an Idol winner was not worth a free drink," Shelton recalled.
"He concluded his announcement with the question: 'What's wrong with our country when out of 150 passengers, only one can name a Medal of Honor recipient, but 43 can name an American Idol winner?'"
Later during the flight, Shelton shared with the attendant his own frustration over "the current lack of appreciation of our military heroes."
The attendant asked Shelton if he knew the names of the other four Medal of Honor receipts from the current military operations. Shelton said he was able to name three: Navy Lt. Michael Murphy, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Monsoor and Army Spc. Ross McGinness.
All were killed sacrificing themselves to protect their comrades during enemy attacks.
Murphy, a Navy SEAL, died June 28, 2005, trying to save his team members during Operation Red Wing in Afghanistan. Monsoor, also a SEAL, died in Iraq on Sept. 23, 2006, using his body to absorb a grenade blast that likely would have killed two nearby SEALs and several Iraqi soldiers. McGinnis died Dec. 4, 2006, after throwing himself on a hand grenade in Iraq to save four fellow soldiers when insurgents attacked their Humvee.
Shelton said he regretted that he had forgotten the name of Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham. Dunham died April 15, 2004, using his body to shield fellow Marines in Iraq from a hand grenade.
The flight attendant didn't hold Shelton's memory lapse against him. "He gave me all the remaining drink coupons he had in his possession and shook my hand," he said.
(Editor's note: A new special report on the Defense Department home page pays tribute to the five U.S. servicemembers who have earned the Medal of Honor for action in the war on terror.)