Seeing the grave of a Vietnam War comrade in Wheaton for the first time last March gave John Kelly, 67, of Chicago, a measure of closure, but he returned on Veterans Day to make further peace with his past.
Kelly spoke to students and staff at James Howard Monroe Middle School, which was named after his friend who was killed during an ambush. Monroe was awarded the Medal of Honor, now on display behind bullet-proof glass at the school.
"I don't think many of you stop or pay attention to that board," Kelly said to the more than 800 students in the gymnasium. "I kept making excuses and kept putting it off," and when he finally saw the medal, awarded in 1968, he said he was a "little overwhelmed." It was then that school officials asked him to return on Veterans Day to help pay tribute to Monroe.
Kelly knew "Jimmy" just four months before he died, but their short time together did not diminish his impact on Kelly.
"He opened up my life," Kelly said, pointing out that it was "Jimmy" who encouraged him to go to college when his tour of duty ended. When Monroe died, it was Kelly and another soldier who were instrumental in writing the narrative that resulted in the Medal of Honor.
"It's so great to have him here," Principal Bryan Buck said.
Having the medal on display has helped ease an identity crisis for the school with some of its staff incorrectly assuming the school was named after the country's fifth president. Every year, during the week leading up to Veterans Day, students are given a lesson about Monroe and the contributions he made in his short life.
Monroe, a Wheaton resident, was working as an Army medic when a live grenade was dropped into a hole where he was treating wounded soldiers. Monroe, 23, threw himself onto the grenade — a selfless act that saved the lives of several soldiers.
While the medal stayed tucked away in a shoe box with Monroe's family for years, school officials decided they wanted to know more about it. A few years ago, the family decided the medal belonged at the middle school.
"I made it my mission so that everyone knows the story of James Howard Monroe," Vice Principal Susan Baldus said. "It's a story worth knowing."