April 19, 2024

Jennifer Barnhill is a columnist for Military.com writing about military families.

If you had opened Heroic Comics issue number 81 in 1953 when it was published, you would have seen an incredible true tale of bravery as a soldier fought to save the lives of his battle buddies atop “Hill 528.”

The battle took place in Korea, in June 1952, when Cpl. Fred McGee assumed command from his wounded squad leader and held off the enemy so his troops could take Hill 528. Despite being shot in the face and leg, he stayed behind to carry wounded soldiers to safety. His actions earned him the Silver Star and two Purple Hearts.

But something about the comic is off. Instead of seeing a depiction of McGee, a Black man, the cartoon hero meant to embody his acts of valor is white. It was just one sign that gaining recognition for McGee’s place in history wouldn’t come easily.

Despite recommendations from a number of officers, it would take until after his death in 2020 for McGee’s actions to be fully recognized. Approval to award McGee the Medal of Honor now sits on President Joe Biden’s desk, with his family attributing much of the delay to the way the country treated Black Americans in the 1950s. The family’s fierce advocacy led to the opportunity for much of the public to hear McGee’s full story.

The injustice apparent in our failure to recognize veterans like McGee highlights the importance of capturing our military stories. But what facet of his story is most worthy of being told? Is it the heroism on the battlefield, the subsequent recognition of McGee’s actions despite prior injustice, or the advocacy of the military family who brought it all to light?

Fred McGee and his wife Cornell
After Cpl. Fred McGee came back from the Korean War as a hero, he experienced symptoms of PTSD, but was always supported his wife Cornell (right) who was always by his side. (Photo courtesy of the McGee family)

“He never discussed the war,” said his wife, Cornell, during a 2011 PBS interview. “The only thing I remember him saying was, ‘I don’t want my boys to go to war. My boys will never go to war.'”

While she wasn’t married to McGee while he was on active duty, Cornell was there for the aftermath. “He would wake up at night, arms flailing and hollering,” she recalled.

Although PTSD was common among those who had experienced battle, it was not something that was well understood or discussed in 1950s America.

“Even though this happened to my Pap, he always showed his pride & love for his country,” said McGee’s granddaughter Brandi Jones, a military advocate and spouse, in an interview with Military.com. And as was common with McGee’s generation of soldiers, it was decades before he started to share stories of service with his family.

“He said, ‘You know, I was supposed to get the Medal of Honor.’ And we were like, ‘What! What do you mean you were supposed to get the Medal of Honor?'” said Jones. “When people who were Black and brown fought in wars before civil rights, it would have been very difficult for them to be recognized at the highest level. Because, you know, the Medal of Honor. It’s the highest level of honor, and it also comes with benefits.”

Benefits and honors that the nation was not yet comfortable bestowing upon Black soldiers.

When the war ended, McGee was happy to have been awarded the Silver Star and two Purple Hearts. To him, the story was over, as was his fight. And that tracks. In the movies, the story often ends when the soldier steps off the battlefield because once they arrive home and take off the uniform, they are just them, humans.

Fred McGee and wife Cornell's marriage ceremony
When Cornell (center right) married Fred McGee she knew he had served in the Korean War, but she didn’t know the extent of his heroism because like his peers, “he never discussed the war.” (Photo courtesy of the McGee family)

But to a military family, service members are not just a body to fill a uniform, they are the person who makes their family whole. We honor their service not because we fully understand it, but because we seek to fully understand them.

So to McGee’s family, his story was not over. It just needed to be rewritten and, in helping him rewrite it, they became part of it.

Jones and her family had to petition their congressional representatives to take up McGee’s cause. In 2019, they reached out to Congressman Bill Johnson of Ohio, who launched a congressional inquiry not long before McGee passed away in 2020. McGee would have been one of the first Black men to receive the honor. Even now, the Medal of Honor has been posthumously awarded to only 94 Black service members.

But McGee’s story did not end with his passing. Instead, Jones and her family put together more than 100 pages of reasons to honor her grandfather’s legacy, something that was required to prove his case because he and many of his peers who could have confirmed his story had already died.

Johnson petitioned Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin for review. While Austin recognized McGee’s heroism in Korea and agreed in a letter that he should be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, due to policies governing the medal, the Defense Department could not unilaterally correct this wrong. It needed congressional approval, which the agency received in 2022. McGee’s long-awaited honor was ultimately included in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act. And now all that stands between McGee receiving this honor is a presidential signature.

“These are missing stories, and they’re actually history, American history,” said Jones. “I’ve been sharing the story for probably 10 years, wherever I would go. But in that moment, when I saw that letter, I felt relieved that it wasn’t gonna die with me.”

— In addition to her reporting, Jennifer Barnhill is also the chief operating officer and lead researcher for Partners in PROMISE, editor-in-chief of the National Military Spouse Network Day of Advocacy Steering Committee, and the military spouse liaison on The League of Wives Memorial Project.

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