The Decatur Daily
by Evan Belanger
Spirit of America Festival pays homage to heroes among us
With multiple awards to his name for heroism in the face of grave danger, retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Frank Libutti humbly accepted another honor Monday — this one named for a childhood hero.
Libutti is the 2011 recipient of the Audie Murphy Patriotism Award, presented during the 45th-annual Spirit of America Festival at Point Mallard Park.
The annual award bears the name of its first recipient, Murphy, the most decorated serviceman of World War II.
He died in a plane crash before he could accept the award at the first Spirit festival in 1967.
“He represented all that is great about this country,” Libutti said. “He was a great hero and a great American.”
Libutti, a Vietnam veteran, who lives in Huntsville, is no stranger to heroic acts.
He earned a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts for his service in a dangerous action involving 130 overwhelmed Marines battling some 3,000 North Vietnamese troops.
Despite withering enemy fire — Libutti was wounded three times during the engagement — he continued carrying dead and wounded Marines to awaiting tanks, taking steps to ensure they did not withdraw before all had been extracted.
Libutti, who says the real heroes are those who did not come home, continues his heroic work today, coordinating fundraisers to provide weekend entertainment for wounded veterans.
Following the Sept. 11 terror attacks, he also served as New York City’s deputy police commander over the Counter Terrorism Bureau and later was undersecretary of information analysis and infrastructure protection for the Department of Homeland Security.
In accepting the award, Libutti stressed the vision and sacrifice made by so many Americans to form the country he called the greatest democracy on earth.
“Americans are our country. You are America,” he told hundreds of people in the audience at Spirit Field.
Other awards presented Monday were as follows:
- Command Sgt. Maj. John and Brenda Perry Support for Military Families Award: Recipients John and Brenda Perry serve more than 140 families with loved ones overseas. The Perrys are volunteer leaders for a family readiness group serving a deployed combat engineering unit.
In their work, they regularly organize farewell and welcome-home ceremonies, inform family members of war developments and arrange teleconferences between soldiers and spouses. With their son, Chad, deployed with the unit, their work takes on a deeply personal meaning.
The award will forever bear their name as its first recipients, though they say there are hundreds more involved in their work.
“We are only the tip of the iceberg,” John Perry said.
- Barrett C. Shelton Sr. Freedom Award: After coordinating the deployment of 2,000 U.S. troops to Iraq in 2004, Ret. Col. Terry Thomas volunteered to deploy himself to the war-torn country.
- At the request of a friend who was still serving, Thomas shipped overseas to coordinate communications in Kuwait and Baghdad.
“At some point, you’ve got to look inside yourself and say, ‘You know, I sent 2,000 people over there, but I haven’t been myself.’ It makes you feel better running into them on the street and they know you’ve been to the same places you have.”
During his 29-year military career with the U.S. Air Force and Alabama Army National Guard, he earned the Silver Order of Mercury, the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ highest honor.
He also coordinated warfare training in South Korea during the 1980s.
- Spirit of America Humanitarian Award: A Vietnam War veteran who volunteered to lead a U.S. Marine Corps combat squad, Joe Bongiovanni continues his support of the military and its personnel today. As chairman of Semper Fi Community Task Force, he works to improve the morale of service men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
And, as general manager of Serra Toyota in Decatur, he is also a major contributor to the Marine Corps Toys for Tots program and numerous other charities. Bongiovanni immigrated to America from Italy at the age of 11 and became interested in the Marine Corps while learning U.S. history.
While accepting his award, Bongiovanni told the crowd his greatest gift in life was becoming an American citizen in 1974.
“It is the greatest country in the world and it is the greatest gift we’ve ever had,” he said. “I’m so proud to be an American and I’m proud to be a Marine.”