Medal of Honor recipient helps educators with character development

Photo by Jenny Kirk After speaking at a workshop on Thursday, Medal of Honor recipient Tom Kelley, left, took time to sign books.

WESTBROOK — Developing everyday heroes was the message delivered to about 45 educators during a Medal of Honor (MOH) Character Development Program (CDP) training session on Thursday at the Westbrook Community Center.

“It’s great just to see these motivated teachers who want to bring a message back to their kids that anybody can make a difference — that they can make a difference,” said speaker Tom Kelley, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy and Medal of Honor recipient.

Medal of Honor recipients believe the values of courage, commitment, integrity, sacrifice, citizenship and patriotism are the qualities of a hero. Through the MOH Character Development Program, stories of military and civilian heroes are highlighted to assist educators in helping their students recognize these values in themselves.

“It’s just a great thing for our communities and schools, to get this type of program going,” said Leo Theisen, who has taught business education at Westbrook-Walnut Grove for 37 years along with serving as athletic director and co-head football coach for many years. “It’s good for our youth of southwest Minnesota because we need something like this.”

Throughout the training workshop, attendees watched living history videos, participated in discussions and had a question and answer session with Kelley.

“To have a Medal of Honor person here with us is good,” Theisen said. “I had a brother (James Theisen) who was killed in Vietnam about the same time, so it’s pretty emotional for me just to watch this stuff. When he talked about some of these things, it really hits home.”

Despite the emotional aspect of the experience, Theisen was quick to acknowledge the importance of educating the younger generation. In October, two MOH recipients — including Walnut Grove native Leo Thorsness, who died this month at the age of 85 — spoke at WWG Schools.

“We tried to incorporate the program into our eighth and ninth grade this year, but we’re trying to enhance it into even more classes,” Theisen said. “I teach some junior high, too. Seventh, eighth and ninth grade are so formative and I think we have a lot of students that need a little guidance about character right now.”

Theisen said other teachers sitting at his table were also exciting to begin utilizing aspects of the program.

“Some teachers mentioned they had some other character development programs and that this would fit in pretty nicely,” he said.

WWG Superintendent Loy Woelber said most of the educators in attendance were from WWG, Tracy Area, Murray County Central, St. James, Hutchinson, Heron Lake-Okabena or from the Southwest West Central Service Cooperative.

“I thought it went great,” Woelber said of the morning portion of the program. “Maybe if the timing was different, we could have gotten 100 people, but then you lose that homey atmosphere. They said ‘Get me 60 people and we’ll come back again.'”

CDP curriculum trainers Jamie Smith and Jason Robbins presented the professional development workshop for the teachers, administrators and other staff members in attendance.

“The Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation’s goal is 70 this year,” Smith said. “Right now, we’re on track to get that. In about 2011, they started doing this and they only had 10-15 a year. Each year, it’s grown. Last year, our goal was about 60. The year before that, 50.”

As long as the Foundation has trainers — they’ve added seven new ones in the past two years for a total of 10 — they’ll keep on doing the program.

“We’re growing and we want to get everywhere we can,” Smith said. “We’ve been in over 40 states at this point. We just did a couple training sessions in Alaska this year, and we have our first one in Wyoming coming up in the fall. We will go where they want us to.”

While Robbins is from San Diego, California, Smith is from Washington state.

“The trainers are actual classroom teachers who are out of the classroom to do this right now,” Smith said. “Jason’s students are currently sitting in his classroom with a substitute he uses every time and they are studying for finals. The Foundation pays for substitutes, kits books and food. We do a lot of fundraising year round because character training is something everyone should have regardless of the income level of individuals or districts.”

The Foundation also pays to fly MOH recipients to the workshops.

“When we can, we get a recipient to come,” Smith said. “We only have about a third of our trainings that have recipients, so this is very special and we’re very lucky to be able to have this (Thursday). Tom flew in from Boston (on Wednesday) and is flying back (Thursday), just so he can be here with the teachers. It’s absolutely amazing.”

Co-chair Tiffany Kovaleski said the Minnesota Medal of Honor Memorial also partners with the Congressional MOH Foundation. She, Memorial chair John Kraemer and Hennepin County Sheriff Steve Labatt accompanied Kelley to the event.

“We’re trying to spread the Character Development Program statewide,” Kovaleski said. “The Foundation sends two trainers and a MOH recipient if one is available. I meet the MOH recipient at the airport and help make sure they get here. Lt. Labatt makes sure Tom is safe everywhere he goes.”

Growing up, Kelley said he always wanted to do something with the water. Having less than 20/20 vision, he was originally denied entry into the military.

“I was leaning toward Navy, Merchant Marines, Coast Guard, something like that out of high school,” he said. “After I couldn’t get in, I went to four years of college. But then I found a program that you didn’t have to have 20/20 vision.”

Kelley’s first assignment after officer candidate school was aboard an old World War II landing ship in the Caribbean during the Cuban missile crisis. He liked the duty so much that he decided to make the Navy a career. In 1966, Kelley served in the fleet off the coast of Vietnam and later, volunteered for the Navy’s River Assault Division, a part of the Mobile Riverine Force operating on the maze-like riverways of the Mekong Delta.

On June 15, 1969, Kelley was in charge of a group of eight boats in Kien Hoa Province that had been moving Army forces around for several hours.When one of the boats experienced a mechanical failure — unmovable because the loading ramp could not be retracted — Kelley maneuvered his slow, heavy, vulnerable-to-enemy-fire boat (referred to as a monitor) in between the disabled boat and the enemy and opened fire.

When a Vietcong rocket hit near Kelley, he suffered serious head wounds. Despite his life-threatening injuries, he continued commanding his troops until their were out of harm’s way. Kelley, who lost an eye and portions of his skull, underwent reconstructive surgery for his head wounds.

“Some of the kids ask if I’ll take out my eye and show it to them,” Kelley said. “A lot of them say, ‘What made you step up to the plate and do what you do? I understand the question, but it’s just a matter of doing what you’re trained to do.”

Robbins said Kelley has traveled all over the country and has met with thousands of kids.

“If you were to tell the teachers one place to start, with where kids are at today, where would you have them start, or what character trait or what lesson do you think they need to take away?” Robbins asked.

Kelley responded, saying he’s suggest putting down their smartphones and throwing their video games out the window.

“Talk to people face-to-face and just play,” he said. “Have a conversation and get to know people. You don’t get that from the Internet age.”

Kelley, who also serves as the MOH Society president, was in attendance at the Oct. 3 groundbreaking ceremony for the Minnesota MOH Memorial, which passed legislation last year to become the first multi-generational memorial on the Capitol Mall. The Memorial is committed to educating and inspiring youth and future generations with the character virtues and values that the MOH recipients and veterans leave as their legacy.

Along with the Minnesota House and Senate, Gov. Mark Dayton signed the Omnibus Legacy Finance bill, allocating $250,000 for the Minnesota MOH Memorial. Those part of the Memorial realize the importance of preserving history before it’s too late. Thorsness was the last living MOH recipient in Minnesota.

“I knew Leo (Thorsness) very well,” Kelley said. “He’s a remarkable guy.”

Thorsness earned the MOH for his courageous action while serving in the Air Force. He was shot down in 1967 and spent six years in captivity in North Vietnam.

“Leo was a gentleman and a brave man,” Kelley said. “He never whined about what he had been through, but he took that as a stepping stone to try and help others as he went through his own life.”