Drew Dix didn't go into many details about the military service that earned him the Medal of Honor in 1969.
Addressing the capacity crowd of students, teachers, staff and community members gathered in the gym at Thunder Ridge Middle School on Nov. 11, Dix summed up his action during the Vietnam War in very few words. He didn't mention his rescue of 14 civilians in 1968; he refrained from speaking in-depth about that harrowing, day-long mission in the city of Chau Phu that saw him running into automatic weapon fire from Viet Cong soldiers to save nurses, civilians and U.S. military comrades.
"It was a very bad situation," Dix said simply.
The rest of Dix's speech to the rapt crowd had more to do with character, integrity and selflessness that any specific conflict or any one battle. The retired Army Major from Pueblo offered a brand of straightforward advice that any of the Thunder Ridge students could easily follow. During a ceremony designed to pay tribute to America's heroes for Veterans Day, Dix delivered tips about the best way to live for civilians and service members alike.
"You should be willing to sacrifice for those who would do it for you," Dix said. "You don't have to be on the battlefield to do the right thing … Your community and your country will be the beneficiary of your good work.
"Believe in something greater than yourself," he added.
It wasn't the first time Dix imparted those basic messages to an attentive audience from the Cherry Creek School District. He delivered his first presentation for the district's Veterans Day celebration in 2008 and returned for the event two years later.
Those appearances came in the midst of a very busy schedule. Dix's regular lecture circuit takes him to schools and community centers across the country. He co-founded the Center For American Values in his native Pueblo in 2010, and the organization works to preserve the ideals that Dix stresses in his public appearances – namely, honor, community, sacrifice and integrity. What's more, he penned a memoir in 2000, and has worked for the Department of Homeland Security in Alaska, where he currently resides.
Through his travels across the country and beyond, Dix has kept the Cherry Creek School District's unique approach to honoring veterans in mind. At schools across the country, Dix cites Cherry Creek's weeklong, district-wide celebration as a model.
"I come back to Cherry Creek whenever I can," Dix said after the assembly. "I'm proud to travel around the country and use Cherry Creek as an example of how it's working. People say, 'Charter school this' and 'Charter school that,' but I say we've got a public school district that's as good as any school in the country. It's because of leadership and family involvement."
The feeling of respect was clearly mutual during Dix's appearance at Thunder Ridge, as well as an earlier stop at High Plains Elementary School. Students and staff alike were entranced as Dix, wearing his Medal of Honor around his neck, spoke about the value of making the right decisions. Admirers of all ages, backgrounds and stations stopped to shake his hand and express gratitude after his presentation, and even Cherry Creek School District Superintendent Harry Bull wasn't immune from the effect of the silent stoicism of one of only 79 living Medal of Honor recipients.
"You will always hear a Medal of Honor recipient speak to their representation of service members. It's not about them, it's about everybody," Bull said. "When you talk about that poignant moment, that important message, what I would suggest is that it's really not the words in the message. It's the emotion that's displayed on the face of Drew Dix. That's the part that I walk away with."
The emotions expressed in Dix's features included silent introspection as a documentary film detailing his bravery on the battlefield played for the hundreds in attendance. The past seemed to return as grainy footage of President Lyndon Johnson hanging the medal around Dix's neck beamed on the screen. There was all the quiet resolve and unspoken dignity one would expect from a decorated war hero.
But Dix also offered plenty of joy in his response to the tributes from the Thunder Ridge community. A wide smile followed a presentation of a check from the school for $250 for Dix's nonprofit; the Medal of Honor recipient beamed as middle school students joined teachers and staff to offer their thanks, praise and appreciation.
Apparently, receiving recognition for unparalleled acts of bravery and selflessness can still come as a surprise for this Pueblo native.
"Those of us who wear the Medal of Honor are very proud to wear it, but we don't think we were doing anything that special," Dix said, before offering a straightforward moral compass for the crowd. "I am proud to be who I am … If you do that, you will make a difference in your family, your community and your country."