A Humble Thanks to a Deserving Soldier

Few Americans will recognize Master Sgt. Woodrow Keeble’s name, but he was an American hero who served in two wars and who deserves our nation’s most prestigious recognition.

I first became aware of Keeble’s bravery in 2002 after being contacted by members of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe who were requesting that his Distinguished Service Cross be upgraded to the Medal of Honor. The Medal of Honor is our nation’s highest military honor, and while it is awarded by Congress, the Department of Defense determines the qualifications and eligibility for the decoration.

Keeble, a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe, was an Army veteran of both World War II and the Korean War. For his service, he was awarded the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, the Silver Star and the Distinguished Service Cross.

The last decoration was awarded for his actions near Kumsong, North Korea, in October 1951. After many days of fighting in the bitter cold, and though he was wounded, Keeble single-handedly took out three enemy machine gun emplacements.

The first-hand accounts of his actions that day read like something out of an old Hollywood movie. What he did was real, and his bravery in the face of enemy fire was so remarkable that the men in his company twice submitted recommendations that he receive the Medal of Honor.

In both cases, the recommendation was lost.

Like so many veterans, Keeble returned home after the war a humble man, not interested in pursuing medals or personal honors. He died in 1982, and without the dedicated effort of his family and fellow veterans, most of us would have never had the opportunity to learn about him. Today, there is an ongoing effort to document his actions through the eyewitness testimony of those veterans who served with him.

This is a valuable effort and will help preserve an important part of our nation’s history.

After first hearing in 2002 of his heroic actions, I contacted the Secretary of the Army to request a review of Keeble’s case. Based on an affidavit from a member of the company that the original recommendations for the Medal of Honor had been lost, I asked the secretary to waive the normal three-year statute of limitations requirement for consideration of the Medal of Honor.

The recommendation to posthumously award the Medal of Honor to Keeble has been reviewed by an Army Decorations Board and a Senior Army Decorations Board, and now awaits final action by the Secretary of the Army.

While all of us who care about this case are frustrated by the amount of time this has taken, the thorough review process is an indication of the importance of the Medal of Honor and the seriousness of this decision.

As more people learn about Keeble’s story, more people are joining in the effort to pay tribute to his service.

I share his story today as part of the continued effort on his behalf and as a reminder of all our military personnel do in defense of our freedom. In the ongoing action in Iraq and Afghanistan, South Dakota has lost nearly 20 soldiers. As a nation, we have lost more than 2,200 young men and women. For all of our heroes, we humbly say “thank you.”

<i>Tim Johnson is the senior U.S. senator from South Dakota.