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updated: 11/11/2013 3:37 PM

Wheaton school remembers Medal of Honor recipient

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  • John Kelly, who served alongside Medal of Honor recipient James Howard Monroe in the Vietnam War, speaks at a Veterans Day Assembly Monday at Monroe Middle School in Wheaton. Kelly said the school's namesake, who was killed while saving two fellow soldiers, was smart, funny and highly respected among members of his company.

       John Kelly, who served alongside Medal of Honor recipient James Howard Monroe in the Vietnam War, speaks at a Veterans Day Assembly Monday at Monroe Middle School in Wheaton. Kelly said the school's namesake, who was killed while saving two fellow soldiers, was smart, funny and highly respected among members of his company.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • John Kelly, who served alongside Medal of Honor recipient James Howard Monroe in the Vietnam War, speaks at a Veterans Day Assembly Monday at Monroe Middle School in Wheaton.

       John Kelly, who served alongside Medal of Honor recipient James Howard Monroe in the Vietnam War, speaks at a Veterans Day Assembly Monday at Monroe Middle School in Wheaton.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • "My goodness, Vietnam was in the '60s," veteran John Kelly told students at Wheaton's Monroe Middle School. "To me, it seems like it was yesterday."

       "My goodness, Vietnam was in the '60s," veteran John Kelly told students at Wheaton's Monroe Middle School. "To me, it seems like it was yesterday."
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Members of Boy Scout Troop 23 present the flag during a Veterans Day Assembly Monday at Monroe Middle School.

       Members of Boy Scout Troop 23 present the flag during a Veterans Day Assembly Monday at Monroe Middle School.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Students give a standing ovation to keynote speaker John Kelly, who served alongside Medal of Honor recipient James Howard Monroe in the Vietnam War.

       Students give a standing ovation to keynote speaker John Kelly, who served alongside Medal of Honor recipient James Howard Monroe in the Vietnam War.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • A wall in the school office of Monroe Middle School in Wheaton honors the school's namesake, Medal of Honor recipient James Howard Monroe of Wheaton. The display includes his medal.

       A wall in the school office of Monroe Middle School in Wheaton honors the school's namesake, Medal of Honor recipient James Howard Monroe of Wheaton. The display includes his medal.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • The Medal of Honor presented to Wheaton's James Howard Monroe, who died in Vietnam while saving the lives of two fellow soldiers.

       The Medal of Honor presented to Wheaton's James Howard Monroe, who died in Vietnam while saving the lives of two fellow soldiers.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

 
 

It's been more than 46 years since Army Pfc. James Howard Monroe of Wheaton died saving the lives of two fellow soldiers in Vietnam.

But for John Kelly, who fought alongside Monroe, the memory of his friend's brave and selfless act is still fresh.

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On Monday, the 67-year-old Chicago man visited James Howard Monroe Middle School to give students some insight about the Wheaton school's namesake. The remembrance was among many Veterans Day ceremonies in DuPage County acknowledging the courage and commitment of our veterans.

During his talk, Kelly referred to the wall where the school proudly displays the Medal of Honor that Monroe received after his death.

"I don't think many of you stop and pay attention to that board," Kelly said to the roughly 800 students who gathered in the school's gymnasium. "My goodness, Vietnam was in the '60s. To me, it seems like it was yesterday."

Kelly said the baby-faced soldier shown in the photographs and drawings adorning the wall was smart, funny, friendly and helpful.

"The guys in the company loved him," Kelly said. "They respected him."

After growing up in Wheaton and graduating from Wheaton Central High School in 1962, Monroe attended Washington & Lee University in Virginia. He was drafted into the Army in the summer of 1966 and soon became a medic.

On Feb. 16, 1967, Monroe's platoon was ambushed during a night mission in the Hoai Nhon province.

"When you are in combat, there's no perception of time," Kelly said. "It's just noise. It's chaos. And you don't know how you're going to react."

School officials say Monroe ignored the enemy and started treating wounded men. While treating a radio operator and his platoon sergeant, he saw a live hand grenade fall directly in their foxhole.

Monroe pushed the sergeant and radio operator away and shouted a warning to others. He then lunged forward and smothered the grenade with his body. He absorbed the full blast and died instantly.

"He was 23 years old when he died," Assistant Principal Susan Baldus said. "He had only been in Vietnam for four months when he made the ultimate sacrifice."

The Medal of Honor was presented to Monroe's family in October 1968. The following year, Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 named Monroe Middle School after the war hero.

Still, some people mistakenly believed the school was named after our fifth president.

So school officials set out four years ago to make sure students and staff members know the story of James Howard Monroe.

"It's a story worth knowing," Baldus said.

Monroe is one of two Wheaton natives to receive the Medal of Honor. In 2010, Army Staff Sgt. Robert Miller also received the nation's highest military honor posthumously.

Miller, who graduated from Wheaton North in 2002, was killed during a Jan. 25, 2008, battle with Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Despite being wounded twice in the chest, the 24-year-old continued advancing, firing and hurling grenades. He drew fire away from fellow soldiers and saved their lives.

Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 Superintendent Brian Harris said Monday's assembly was a teachable moment to help students "understand the dedication, the commitment" of all veterans.

Kelly told the middle school students that Monroe would advise them to live fully in the present and shape the future.

"You are the future," he said. "And you will be called upon to make decisions for this country."

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