Read the names of the recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and you'll struggle to find any common theme. Colin Powell. B.B. King. Jack Nicklaus. Bob Dylan. Scientists, teachers, doctors, ambassadors, authors. And, we should point out, you can find many lists of recipients, but nothing fully comprehensive. That's because since its creation in 1945, roughly 20,000 Presidential Medals of Freedom have been awarded. No one seems to know what the exact tally is.
So, is it the right distinction for the West Webster firefighters?
No distinction seems like too much for the two men who gave their lives and the others still recovering. But it's worth reading the language on the official criteria for the Medal, which is the highest civilian honor attainable: It honors "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."
There is nothing in the language that would indicate it's not the right for these men. Interestingly, 13 WHAM could not find any record of a volunteer firefighter ever having received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It's true that most recipients have some level of widespread acclaim or fame, but not all fit that description.
Each year, the president hands out several dozen Medals of Freedom. In 2012 they included Toni Morrison, John Glenn, and others less famous, including Jan Karski, an officer of the Polish Underground during World War II who survived to bring one of the first eye-witness accounts of the Holocaust to the world. For those who argue that the Webster firefighters would not be the right choice, it's worth pointing out that only the White House makes that kind of call. There is no precedent for just about any Medal recipient. It's all about presidential discretion.
Still, some disagree with the growing sentiment in favor of the West Webster firefighters. On the 13 WHAM Facebook page, Todd Rapp writes, "I know this will be unpopular but it seems to me that this is over the top. Yes, what happened was horrible but these men were simply doing what all volunteer firefighters do... I have the utmost respect for these men and I'm horrified at what happened but the Medal of Freedom is not warranted. If it is, then it should be given to every firefighter that has responded to a fire."
What Rapp is missing is that the president could award the Medal to these firefighters and declare that their sacrifices are symbolic of all volunteer firefighters, and thus deserving of the honor. However, some other viewers echoed Rapp's point, and it seems that if the White House declines to offer the Medals, the primary reason could be exactly the issue raised by Rapp.
Medals are often awarded in clusters, and often in the spring. 13 WHAM will follow the developments as they relate to firefighters Mike Chiapperini, Tomasz Kaczowka, Ted Scardino, and Joe Hofstetter.