This blog is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we’ll highlight one of the nearly 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the honor of wearing the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.
By Alex Snyder, Defense Media Activity
What makes a man a hero?
For Lawrence Joel, it was one selfless act.
Joel was born on George Washington’s birthday, Feb. 22, 1928. His family was desperately poor, living in the slums near Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
With ten children to feed, there was never enough money to go around. Joel regularly wrapped his feet in burlap sacks to hunt for coal to heat his family’s shack. He was chronically absent from school, often because he didn’t have clothes to wear.
At age 8, Joel was taken in by Clayton Samuel and his family. Samuel owned a truck that he sold wood, coal and ice out of. It became Joel’s job to sound the auto brake drum on its side, alerting customers in the country towns.
Joel was by all accounts, average.
He attended the local schools where he made average grades. He was of average build and a mild manner. However, he wished to escape poverty and North Carolina. At age 17, Joel joined the Merchant Marines. A year later, he joined the Army on his birthday in 1946.
He got out of the Army in 1949, held a number of jobs, and met his wife Dorothy while serving as a civilian inspector of artillery shells at Fort Meade, Maryland.
In 1953, just as the Korean War was ending, Joel rejoined the Army as an airborne medic.
He had a tour in Lebanon, and in Alaska he received a citation after treating troopers burned in a personnel carrier explosion. He patched up broken bones that inevitably followed paratroop drops.
Joel went to Okinawa in November 1964, to join the 173rd Airborne Brigade. Five months later he was in Vietnam. He’d never treated any battle casualties, and he’d never seen any action.
That was before Nov. 8, 1965, and 16 hours of hell.
While searching the hot, sticky jungle, Joel’s unit encountered nearly 700 Viet Cong soldiers. In the ensuing battle, Joel was wounded twice. One slug struck him in his calf. Another hit him in a thigh.
After being wounded the first time, Joel bandaged himself and gave himself a shot of morphine, then went back to working on the wounded, treating 13 soldiers and saving the life of one who had suffered a serious chest wound, before his supplies were exhausted.
“I found a stick on the ground with a little crook in it,” Joel later recalled. “I broke it about waist high and sort of cradled my arm in it so I could hobble around. That way I could make it from one man to the next — sort of fall down beside him, then pull myself up on a tree or something when I finished.”
Throughout the fighting, Joel ignored warnings to stay out of the line of fire and continued attending to the wounded men.
After the battle, his commanding officer said, “Joel was definitely not worried about getting wounded. Usually, when you hear metal flying, the normal inclination is to get as low as you can or to get something between you and the flying metal. But not Joel.”
Joel spent three months recovering from his wounds in a hospital in Saigon, Vietnam. He was awarded the Silver Star, and later, the Medal of Honor, by President Lyndon B. Johnson. He was the first living African-American to receive the Medal of Honor since the Spanish-American War ended in 1898.
“I’m glad to be alive,” Joel said, after the Medal of Honor presentation in the White House Rose Garden. “I just wish I could have done more. I’ll never say I deserved the medal. That’s just not for me to say. It was my job.”
Joel retired from the Army as a sergeant first class in 1973 and died in 1984 from complications from diabetes. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
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