Medal of Honor winner gets Wheeling High School degree posthumously 30 years later

Thirty years after Michael Blanchfield posthumously received the Medal of Honor, he received his Wheeling High School diploma.

In a ceremony Friday that included speeches from U.S. Congressman Bob Dold, Blanchfield's family was presented with a plaque signifying his induction as a distinguished alumni as well as his honorary diploma. Wheeling Village President Judy Abruscato, students of Northwest Suburban High School District 214 and representatives of the 173rd Airborne Brigade also spoke.

Members of the Blanchfield family at the ceremony included his two sisters — Bobby Jo Dombek of St. Charles and Pat Darrow of the Atlanta area — his brother Bill Blanchfield, and nieces and grandnephews that Michael Blanchfield never met.

“It meant a lot to us, because he never graduated from Wheeling, that he got an honorary diploma,” Pat Darrow said.

Blanchfield dropped out of school as a sophomore, but the family says that after joining the Army, he got his GED and he has already received the highest award given by the Army.

“He was already honored on a larger scale. This was just an extra added bonus,” Bobby Jo Dombek said.

Mark Darrow, Pat's husband, accepted the awards on the family's behalf at the ceremony conducted in the school's theater.

“For our family, this is an enormous day of pride much the same as any family who is having a loved one graduate,” Mark Darrow said while addressing the crowd. “While Michael's journey may follow a very unconventional path to a diploma, I believe we are all in violent agreement that he has met all the requirements of graduation.”

Blanchfield received the Medal of Honor for his actions to save the lives of his fellow soldiers during the Vietnam War.

On July 3, 1969, Blanchfield was on patrol with a group of soldiers in Binh Dinh Province in the Republic of Vietnam. They were chasing a suspect when the man started throwing grenades at the soldiers.

The first grenade injured Blanchfield. When he saw the next one coming, he threw himself on the grenade, sacrificing himself to save the rest of his unit. He was 19.

“Who knows why he did what he did. There's no answer to the question why. There's no training for that selflessness to save his buddies. There's no answers,” said Takie Mandakas, president of the Chicago chapter of the 173rd Airborne Association.

Congressman Dold took time in his speech to remind the students that Blanchfield was only a sophomore when he left the school.

“A special thank you to Michael and his family that are here,” Rep. Dold said. “We, the United States of America, would not be the nation we are if not for the sacrifices that you all have given us.”

Students across the building watched the ceremony on closed circuit television, while about 60 watched from within the theater. The school administration scheduled the ceremony so that it could be used as a teaching tool as well as an honorary ceremony for Blanchfield.

“We wanted to induct Michael into our hall of fame at a time when his actions in Vietnam could tie into our curriculum,” said Dr. Ken Stiff, the associate principal who coordinated the event.

The event also included speeches from three students that educated the audience about Memorial Day, distinguished alumni and the Medal of Honor.

“They've seen movies about war, but seeing the movies is not what this is,” said Bob Kupon, history teacher and a Vietnam War veteran. “You touch history.”

Kupon took his U.S. history class to see the assembly in the theater.

“It's weird to think you walk through the same halls as someone who gave up their life,” said Sarah Pozniak, a junior in Kupon's class.

This ceremony concluded the effort that Wheeling's former principal, Tom Shirley, a Korean War veteran, started soon after Blanchfield's death.

“It's a nice day. This day is his day,” Shirley said.

  Michael Blanchfield’s brother-in-law, Mark Darrow, salutes the crowd after accepting the Distinguished Alumni Plaque and honorary District 214 diploma for Vietnam War hero and Wheeling High School student Michael Blanchfield. Bob Chwedyk/
  From left, Congressman Bob Dold, Michael Blanchfield’s brother-in-law Mark Darrow, Dr. Lazaro Lopez, principal of Wheeling High School, and Michael’s sister Pat Darrow look over the Distinguished Alumni Plaque and honorary District 214 diploma presented to the Blanchfield family to honor Vietnam War hero and Wheeling High School student Michael Blanchfield. Bob Chwedyk/
Michael Blanchfield’s niece Ashley Merkley and great-niece Sofia Merkley, 3, watch the presentation honoring the Vietnam War hero.