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03-04-09, 07:44 AM
Medal of Honor recipient speaks to Riverside students

10:00 PM PST on Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Press-Enterprise

Retired Marine Col. Robert J. Modrzejewski came to the Inland region this week for a golf tournament honoring heroes, but he rejected the label when he spoke to high school students Tuesday in Riverside.

Modrzejewski, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his service in Vietnam, told about 200 students at Arlington High School that he simply tried to protect the men under his command. Modrzejewski, who lives in San Diego, said he shared the medal with those 130 Marines and Navy corpsmen.

"I'm just a caretaker," he said of the medal he wore around his neck. "This is not mine. I had plenty of help."

Modrzejewski spoke in an even, matter-of-fact tone about leading his outnumbered company against the North Vietnamese in a three-day battle after his men seized territory with ammunition and other supplies. At the end, 500 of the North Vietnamese fighters and 16 of his unit members were dead, he said.

The Arlington students prepared for the visit by reading some of the citations honoring recipients of the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military honor. They also watched a public-television broadcast about the recipients and their acts of bravery, Principal Antonio Garcia said.

Nearly half the students who attended the lecture were members of the school's Air Force Reserve Officers' Training Corps.

Afterward, students asked him about receiving the medal from President Lyndon Johnson, joining the Marine Corps and going through the days of fighting.

Modrzejewski, 74, told them he focused on not making any mistakes that would cost the lives of his men.

"I wanted to make sure I brought back as many people as I could," he said.

Though it was his service in Vietnam that earned him the medal, Modrzejewski said serving on the homefront was more difficult in some ways. When he served as a casualty assistance officer, he had to go to the homes of parents and spouses to tell them their family members had died.

The first time he visited a father, the man slammed the door on him twice before letting him in, he said.

"He started pointing his finger in my chest and asking me why I took his son," he said.

Twice, he said, he had to visit families of those killed in accidents resulting from playing with weapons, he said.

"My advice to you is don't play with guns," Modrzejewski said, then had the audience members repeat the line twice.

Modrzejewski is one of more than 3,400 recipients of the Medal of Honor, 98 of whom are still living. He told the students some of the statistics about the medal and mentioned the only woman to receive it, Civil War surgeon Mary Walker.

He left the school with a copy of a book with biographies of the Medal of Honor recipients and said he hoped the school would put it in its library.

After the speech, many of the members of the JROTC gathered around Modrzejewski to have him sign their programs.

Blaine Miskelly, a freshman and a member of the school's JROTC, said he appreciated how Modrzejewski emphasized the sacrifices of the men under him.

"In the military it's one team, not one person," said Miskelly, 15.

Modrzejewski is one of four Medal of Honor recipients who participated in the Stater Bros. Charities Dave Stockton Heroes Challenge on Monday at the Victoria Club in Riverside. The tournament, organized by the supermarket chain and Stockton, a local golf professional, also drew medal recipients Harvey C. Barnum Jr., Ronald E. Ray and James A. Taylor.

Reach Shirin Parsavand at 951-368-9645 or sparsavand@PE.com