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War hero ‘Woody’ Williams, 91, still speaks often

Parkersburg News and Sentinel photo by Jeff Baughan Woody Williams shows his medal to fourth through eighth grade students Tuesday.
Parkersburg News and Sentinel photo by Jeff Baughan
Woody Williams shows his medal to fourth through eighth grade students Tuesday.

LITTLE HOCKING, Ohio — The youngest students at Little Hocking Elementary School might have just seen the speaker that stood in front of them Tuesday morning as their classmate’s great-grandfather, but Hershel “Woody” Williams is much more than that.

West Virginia native Williams, 91, is the last living person to receive the Medal of Honor from service at the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II.

Now the founder and namesake of the Hershel “Woody” Williams Medal of Honor Foundation, Williams still commands some 200 speaking engagements a year, in addition to helping build monuments across the country dedicated to military families and loved ones.

“When I grew up, I never thought of being in the military,” Williams said.

“But when I was about 17 years old, I was told someone was trying to take my freedom away from me, and so I joined, and it became our job to make sure our freedom was preserved.”

Williams first addressed kindergarten-through-third grade students at Little Hocking Elementary Tuesday before addressing fourth-through-eighth grade students in the afternoon.

“I like that we get to listen to this because I think it’s a great honor to be a part of America,” said Maggie Reynolds, 8.

Reynolds’ classmate, Benji Casey, is Williams’ great-grandson, and helps further tie Williams to the area.

“We should know what happened back then, so it’s good to learn about it,” said Mason O’Donnell, 7.

During his 26 years of service in the U.S. Marine Corps between 1943 and 1969, Williams received the highest level of honor awarded by the U.S. Armed Forces from President Harry Truman in 1945 for his courageous combat service during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

“Everyone is afraid in combat, but controlling that fear takes courage to do what you’re obligated to do,” Williams said.

“You don’t let fear get the best of you, you get the best of fear.”

Several years ago, Williams was at one of his many speaking engagements in Parkersburg when he asked who in the crowd had lost a loved one in the armed forces, and witnessed only mothers raise their hands.

But when he was approached afterward by a man in the crowd with tears in his eyes, Williams was inspired.

“He told me that ‘dads cry too,'” Williams said. “He had lost his son in Afghanistan.”

Williams went on to establish the Hershel “Woody” Williams Medal of Honor Foundation in 2012, which helps to build Gold Star Families monuments across the country to honor all of those who have ever lost loved ones in the military.

“After he heard that story he changed his direction,” said Bryan Casey, Williams’ grandson and a member of the foundation. “It impacts entire families, not just mothers.”

The plan was to reach a broader scope than the already established Gold Star Mothers formed after World War I, and now about 13 of the monuments are in various stages of planning or construction throughout the U.S.

Casey said the foundation is holding a fundraiser in April to raise money to place one of the monuments in Parkersburg.

“The monuments cost about $25,000 to $35,000,” he said. “The hope with the fundraiser is that they can raise about $15,000 for it.”

Seven monuments are standing across the U.S., including the original in Dunbar, W.Va., and one soon to be opened in Fairfield, Ohio.

Casey said the foundation supplies matching funds to military groups, communities and individuals to bring the monuments to their area.

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