The first Vietnam War veteran to earn the Medal of Honor for heroic action spoke recently to students at Millikan Middle School, bringing a message about the selflessness of service and the importance of gratitude.
Retired Army Col. Roger Donlon, 83, said his life was shaped by his family, with his mother providing spiritual guidance and his father and brother teaching him about citizenship and duty through their military service during the nation’s two world wars.
“Always remember to thank those who serve your country and your community,” Donlon said. “I am not talking just about the thousands of men and women in uniform sacrificing to protect your country. I am talking about your teachers and your moms and dads. Saying ‘thank you’ goes a long way, serving as a source of strength and inspiration as they do their jobs.”
The visit was arranged by Millikan history teacher Christopher McLemore, who has been working for several years with the Ronald Reagan Library and Medal of Honor Foundation to bring a character curriculum to the Sherman Oaks campus.
“We are extremely humbled and honored that the colonel has taken the time and dedicated service to spend time with our students,” McLemore said. “This is an excellent way of bringing the students something that is real. It’s a chance for them to see what an actual hero looks like. It aligns with the character-building lessons we provide, including conversations about who you look up to and why you look up to them.”
Students listened attentively to Donlon as he answered questions about his upbringing, how it shaped his character, his military experience and philosophy of life.
“What life lessons did you learn from the military, and how did you grow from it?” asked seventh-grader Katherine Matthews.
“The lessons in the military are the same as I learned at home,“ Donlon said. “The most important lesson is teamwork. You may think you are pretty good at accomplishing things as an individual, but you soon realize you can do much greater things as part of a team. No matter where I have been or what I was doing, first and foremost, I focused on building a team, working to become the best, most reliable and trustworthy member of the team I could be.”
A common theme was the growing diversity in America. Donlon asked students how to say the word ‘turtle’ – the school’s mascot – in languages they knew, and he received more than 20 different responses.
“When I was your age we called the U.S. a ‘melting pot,’” Donlon said. “Looking at your faces now, I am reminded of how we have become a melting pot of a greater magnitude. We used to have to travel abroad to experience environments with multicultural and multinational representation. That’s not true anymore. The whole world is here. America continues to grow and be the greatest family of nations.”
Rounding out the discussion were the colonel’s comments about what students could do to be good citizens.
“Continue with your education,” he said. “The responsibility of building your country starts with learning about your world and being informed. And then take that information forward to shape your democracy. Fulfill your responsibilities as citizens by voting. You don’t have to wait until you are adults. It starts here and now in your classrooms and in looking to your fellow classmates for leadership and to make your voice heard.”
Following the conversation, Donlon took time to take pictures with students and shake hands with each individual as they returned to their classrooms. Dozens of students approached the colonel to thank him for his service and for spending time with them.
Among students was the school’s student body president, eighth-grader Shamari Blanchard.
“It was so great to have the chance to meet a hero,” she said. “Meeting him helps tell us that if we work hard we can get somewhere, and we can always follow our dreams. The colonel is a real life example of that.”
Also in attendance was the school’s cafeteria manager, Alfred Nichols, the only Vietnam War veteran on campus.
“I am proud to stand side-by-side with this man,” he said as he saluted the Medal of Honor recipient. “It is because of heroic actions like his that many vets like me are standing today.”
Donlon received the Medal of Honor for his actions defending a Special Forces camp in Nam Dong, which was attacked by two Viet Cong battalions. During the five-hour battle, Donlon marshaled forces to thwart a breach at the main gate, saved valuable ammunition and attended to wounded soldiers while repelling the attack.
“It was an honor and privilege to have Colonel Donlon speak to our students,” said Millikan Principal John Plevack. “It is a rare opportunity to have a true American hero to provide such a positive experience for our students.”