Over 250 men have been awarded the Medal of Honor who list as their place of birth “Ireland”. Though uniforms, weapons and enemies have changed, their love and devotion to their adopted country that motivated them to deeds of the highest bravery in her defense have remained constant. There should, in this writer’s opinion, be one more name on that list, Lance Corporal Patrick Gallagher, USMC.
Patrick Gallagher was born in Derrintogher, County Mayo, Ireland on February 2, 1944. At the age of eighteen, as so many young Irish men and women before him, Patrick immigrated to the United States and the promise of a new life filled with opportunity. He quickly started on the immigrant dream: studying law while working in real estate; even getting involved in local politics as a campaign worker for Senator Robert Kennedy. In 1966, Patrick was drafted for service in Vietnam. Despite pleas from a heart sick sister living in the states to avoid the horrors of war by simply returning to Ireland, Patrick would not be swayed. He already had a cousin serving with the Marines in Nam and Patrick was committed to his new home in America. He swore his sister and other American relatives to secrecy to avoid worrying his family in Ireland. Patrick returned to his native Ireland for a brief visit with his family where he told no one that upon his return he would be joining the United States Marines.
Patrick shipped out to Vietnam as a member of Hotel Company, 2/4 Marines, 3rd Division. On the night of 18 July 1966, while serving in a forward position at Cam Lo with three other Marines who were sleeping, their position came under grenade attack by enemy forces. The first grenade Patrick was able to kick out of their position where it exploded only to be followed by a second grenade that fell between two of his comrades. Without hesitation and in an unselfish act of valor, Lance Corporal Gallagher threw himself on the grenade to personally absorb the full brunt of the explosion and save his comrades. Pinned under Gallagher's body, the grenade failed to go off. Lance Corporal Gallagher continued to lie on the grenade as his three comrades escaped the position despite the fact that two more enemy grenades were thrown into the position to explode around him. His comrades now in a position of safety and still miraculously unhurt, Gallagher then rolled off the grenade at his squad leader’s order and threw the grenade where it immediately exploded upon hitting the ground.
For his extraordinary heroism Gallagher was recommended for the Medal of Honor. However, over protests the recommendation was downgraded by the battalion commander to the Navy Cross and the Medal of Honor recommendation not forwarded. When challenged as to why the recommendation for a Medal of Honor for a man who had willing fallen on an enemy grenade in full expectation that he was dying to save his comrades was downgraded, the response was “because it hadn't killed him.” Needless to say this appears a terribly flawed and capricious decision on the part of that battalion commander; the Medal of Honor is awarded for the act performed, not on the basis of what happens to the individual performing it.
Patrick Gallagher’s heroism on the night of July 18, 1966 was perhaps only exceeded by his good fortune to survive, but even the "luck of the Irish" is not infinite and it appears that Lance Corporal Gallagher had expended his allotment in trying to save others. Two months after receiving the Navy Cross and due shortly to return home, Lance Corporal Gallagher was killed while on patrol. Lance Corporal Patrick Gallagher returned home, his body accompanied by the cousin he had followed into the Marines, Staff Sergeant Gerald Moylan, who presented the flag and gratitude of a distant country to his grieving mother.
While certainly the Navy Cross is a prestigious honor worthy of the highest respect, many would argue that the actions of Lance Corporal Gallagher on that July night in Vietnam embody both in action and in the spirit the very definition of why the Medal of Honor was established. Whether through misunderstanding of the criteria for the award of the Medal of Honor or some other factor, the decision to downgrade the recommendation that Lance Corporal Gallagher be awarded the Medal of Honor simply because he survived his act of unselfish heroism appears flawed and not reflective of the heroism of his actions.
Recently, thanks to a mandated Congressional review, 24 heroic veterans who had been previously awarded service crosses when their actions merited our Nation's highest honor have had their awards upgraded. It is hoped that through the efforts of supporters writing their Congressional representatives the action of LCpl Gallagher will be accorded the courtesy of a similar review; it would be hard to believe that an impartial informed review would deny him our Nation’s highest honor. There is also a movement to name a Navy Ship after LCpl Gallagher, an on-line petition for which can be found at www.PatrickGallagherUSMC.info.