When senior Midshipman Rylan Tuohy applied to the U.S. Naval Academy, part of his inspiration to serve came from the service of his uncle, Marine Corps Private First Class Albert Schwab, who was killed in action and posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions as a flamethrower operator during World War II.
Tuohy, a native of Greenville, Kentucky, attended the 18th Annual American Veterans Center Conference with his classmates at the U.S. Naval Heritage Center, Nov. 6-7, 2015. One of the last things he expected was to come face to face with a living Medal of Honor recipient who visited with his family in 1946. Tuohy said he instinctively knew that retired Marine Corps Chief Warrant Officer Hershel “Woody” Williams knew his uncle.
“There was that sense of connection immediately,” said Tuohy. “Even though there are decades between us, it was almost right then and there. He stopped and looked at me and immediately said, ‘I was at his dedication in Tulsa.’ My grandfather was in Tulsa so to think that all these miles apart, but yet we’re connected by this common theme, this sense of service was just incredible. I know I would never have experienced that if it weren’t for this conference.”
Williams said he has worn the medal for Tuohy’s uncle and his fellow Marines.
“In these 70 years that I’ve possessed the medal, I have said from day one, I do not wear it for what I did, I wear it for those who didn’t get to come home,” said Williams.
Williams was one of more than two dozen speakers at the American Veterans Center Conference who shared their stories of perseverance, resilience and bravery under the most perilous battlefield conditions.
Like Schwab, Williams was a flamethrower operator as well and fought for weeks clearing out machine gun nests under heavy enemy fire. Williams landed on Iwo Jima in February 1945 and fought until he was wounded a month later. By April, Schwab landed on the shores of Okinawa and fought until his death in May 1945. According to his Medal of Honor Citation, Schwab destroyed two strategic Japanese gun positions, saving the lives of his fellow Marines and allowing his company to advance.
While much of the conference covered battlefield bravery, it also focused on the courageous contributions of female leaders in the military and lessons in leadership for future officers.
“I just think we’re really fortunate to have the emphasis be on exposure to midshipmen and to cadets in this conference and that we are granted this access to learn from those who have served and who are serving,” Tuohy added.
The president and founder of the American Veterans Center, James C. Roberts said stories like these fortify future officers for challenges they’ll face.
“You can learn an awful lot from what’s gone on before,” said Roberts. “I think that’s what these young people take away from this when they hear these amazing experiences from veterans who said we were just ordinary people and we were put in circumstances and we did our duty."
More than 400 midshipmen and cadets from the U.S. military service academies, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and more than 20 multi-service ROTC commissioning programs attended and participated in the conference.
Roberts, a former Navy officer and veteran of the Vietnam War, said the experience will broaden their horizons and help them become better leaders.
“I think it’s really essential that future military leaders have an opportunity to not only hear from great military leaders from the past, but also have an opportunity to meet them one-on-one and to talk to them, ask questions and try to discover the secrets of command and secrets of success that these older generations of veterans have,” said Roberts.
The conference started with a panel discussion on wartime injuries and the difficult journey to recovery.
“I had never seen a panel like that before where they had people who were wounded in combat,” said Cadet Raymond D. Dilworth from Bells, Texas, a decorated combat-wounded soldier who is currently participating in the Army’s Green to Gold program with Texas A&M University’s Corps of Cadets.
“When I was in the Wounded Warrior Transition Battalion, they talked about speaking up about your stuff. Don’t keep it inside because then it’s going to start eating away at you.”
Dilworth said listening to others made him realize that his own personal journey to a full recovery is still evolving.
“Seeing them in this setting with all of these people in there just sharing their stories openly and talking about some of the hard things that we go through and how they overcame it was a huge help to me,” Dilworth added. “I actually went down and talked to a couple of them afterwards. Even four years later, I’m still learning things.”
Dilworth enlisted in the Army after graduating high school in 2009 as a combat medic and deployed to Afghanistan where he was wounded by an enemy grenade. Despite his injuries, Dilworth treated himself and two other soldiers injured in the attack.
“We all three made it but it was a day that I will always remember,” Dilworth said.
After several surgeries and months of rehabilitation at the Wounded Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Knox, Kentucky, Dilworth kept pushing to stay in the service against advice from doctors who suggested he be medically retired. Against the odds, he went on to become a Green Beret and Army Ranger. Now, he is set on earning his commission and continue doing what he loves — being a soldier.
Dilworth said his decision to join the military was deeply influenced by the kindness his family received from U.S. soldiers in Palermo during the Allied invasion of Sicily in World War II.
“My grandfather was just a young child,” said Dilworth. “So when the American soldiers came in, they were nice and played soccer with him and gave him candy.
During his deployment, Dilworth said he played cricket with local children and felt like he made a lasting difference like the one made with his family. “I always knew I wanted to join the military and possibly do that for someone else.”
As he spoke with soldiers who served during the invasion of Sicily in 1943, he wondered, “…is this one of those soldiers who was so good to my grandfather and my family and is the reason why I’m here and who I am today?”