It’s been eight years, but I can still remember the feeling of standing amongst those who served, listening to their stories of heroism. It was the 2014 National Medal of Honor Celebration and Knoxville was selected as the caretaker of such an important event. I was fledgling assistant editor at the time, and with press pass in hand felt a sense of pride for getting to be part of such an event.
Joe Thompson co-chaired the event that year. “We’re in a part of the country that’s very patriotic,” he tells me. “We’re telling the Volunteer story.” The event brought so much enthusiasm to the location selection committee that year that Knoxville made the short list of future hosts. And when the time came to select a 2022 host, the committee could think of no place better than good ole Tennessee.
“They called me in 2020 and said, ‘We’re coming back to Knoxville,'” Joe recalls. “I thought that just meant they were coming through.” But the committee had other plans. Joe arrived in Dallas that year to “talk about” the idea of Knoxville hosting a second time, but when he walked into the room—with 10 recipients in person and another 60 on a Zoom call—they simply told him they couldn’t wait to return. “We just voted, and we’re coming to Knoxville.” The planning for 2022 had begun.
Knoxville is only the second city to host for a second time (the only other being Boston). “In some respects, it’s easier,” Joe says of being veteran hosts, “but it also comes with its own set of challenges. The bigger challenge is that recipients are older and there are more mobility issues. There are also a lot more young recipients that have young children.” That means planning events that cater to practically all generations; that’s no easy feat. But Joe and the local planning committee have heeded the call.
Between September 6 and September 10, recipients will enjoy five days of activities that have been put together to provide them the very best experience in East Tennessee. More than 40 Medal of Honor recipients will be in attendance—of the only 65 living recipients today. By comparison, 19 recipients came together in Boston last year for the convention.
Black hawk helicopters will welcome the recipients to Knoxville at World’s Fair Park. The recipients will make their way to eight different regional schools for visits and talks, all schools selected due to their active participation in the Character Development Program. The program uses the stories of the Medal of Honor recipients to teach civic lessons about patriotism, service, and sacrifice.
The Valor Outreach program will invite young veterans to a program focused on the more challenging topics related to service and sacrifice, namely PTSD, homelessness, and suicide, among others. “These are very difficult subjects,” Joe says. “But the recipients are very open about their struggles.”
Special tours, dinners, and breakfasts are all part of the itinerary for the region’s special guests, but so too is a memorial service at Sacred Heart Cathedral for the recipients who have passed away in the last year or received the honor in the last year but are no longer with us.
Two special dinners will round out the five-day event, including the Citizens Honor Award dinner, where Medal of Honor recipients give awards for extraordinary acts of heroism by ordinary citizens and the Patriot Award Gala, a special final event where recipients will recognize individuals with four distinguished awards.
For Joe, seeing this year’s program finally come to fruition is heartening. More than 150 people—recipients and their families included—will call Knoxville home for the five days. And for Joe, it’s clearer than ever why they can’t wait to come. “They feel the excitement when they come to Knoxville,” he says. “When they come here, everybody knows they’re here.” There are light post banners, billboards, media attention, school visits with thousands of students, military participation from the nearby bases. All of it to honor their acts of heroism. “I feel a sense of pride that we are able to make Knoxville look so good and bring this event back,” Joe says. “It’s just a very, very special group of Americans, and we’re honored that they’ve chosen us.”
For the full list of events and activities, readers can visit www.mohknoxville2022.org.