Honoring the Greatest

Amelio Cucinelli is proud that his Army issue boots are still as shiny as they were over 60 years ago when he fought to liberate Europe from Nazi tyranny. At 93 years of age, Cucinelli is most certainly one of the Greatest Generation, and on Friday, April 28, at Norwich, he and 17 fellow World War II veterans received the highest honor awarded by the French Republic: The Legion of Honor.

Wearing his light brown 82nd Airborne uniform adorned with the shining silver green and blue Legion of Honor, Chevalier medal, the Beverly, Mass., native said receiving the award was one of the greatest moments of his life.

"This is the greatest honor I've ever received," Cucinelli said while awaiting the beginning of the Corps of Cadets parade. "I've got so many awards at home I could wallpaper the house, but this is definitely the greatest one."

Founded by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, the National Order of the Legion of Honor is the highest distinction given in France. It recognizes eminent service to the French Republic. Recipients of the honor are named by decree signed by the President of the Republic.

In a ceremony as prestigious as the award itself, representatives from all branches of the United States Military, the French Republic and her armed forces, the State of Vermont and Norwich University, turned out to offer their respect and gratitude to the honorees. Speaker after speaker approached the podium and briefly yet eloquently heralded the achievements of the Greatest Generation.

"Today is all about these World War II veterans, "Norwich University President Richard Schneider said. "I want to thank you on behalf of the Corps of Cadets and everyone here at Norwich University for being the role models that you are to us. Today you are visiting the nation's oldest private, military college, founded in 1819. You are at the birthplace of the Reserve Officers Training Corps of the United States. It is indeed a privilege, and befitting, that we are honoring you here on our campus today. Because of you, France and America are free. We salute you."

France's Consul General in Boston, François Gauthier, presented the honorees their medals after reading a letter from French President Jacque Chirac. In the letter, Chirac wrote to the 18 WWII vets that "… France will never forget what it owes to America. To each of you I want to repeat that France has not forgotten you, the American soldiers of honor and freedom; you deserve the eternal esteem, recognition and affection of the entire French nation."

Gauthier also thanked the honorees himself, and in doing so, stated the strong bonds that have bound the nations of France and the United States together since the American Revolution. Those bonds, he said, were strengthened in World War I and through the services rendered by the veterans being honored on Friday.

"The eighteen men we are gathered here for today, all contributed to the liberation of my country, France, from the oppression of tyranny," Gauthier said. "Gentlemen, you liberated my country. Nothing would have been possible without the commendable generosity and sacrifices of the American people and their soldiers."

Michael DePaulo, Special Liaison to the Consul General for veteran's affairs also lauded the honorees and read a letter from President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, thanking the honorees for their services to the nation and the world.

After receiving their medals, the veterans were then personally thanked with flowers, hugs and handshakes from family members and French citizens who attended the event.

Following the official ceremony, the honorees retired to the back of Plumley Armory for a "Taste of France," a catered luncheon of smoked tuna steaks, croissants, salad Niçoise and truffles. About 265 guests attended the luncheon, during which Governor James Douglas took the opportunity to address the honorees.

"It's almost impossible to contemplate what the world might have been like if it were not for the bravery of the men we honor today, and so many of their colleagues who are not with us, having made the ultimate sacrifice," Douglas said. "We are honoring those who through their service to our country stood to protect our nation and her ideals. The gentlemen we honor today exemplify Norwich's motto, 'Expect Challenge, Achieve Distinction,' and the gentlemen we're honoring have certainly achieved distinction in a most remarkable way."

The day's events culminated on the Upper Parade Ground with a full pass and review by the Norwich University Corps of Cadets. As he walked to his chair to view the Corps on the march, Cucinelli paused every few steps to salute officers who lined the walkway. Smiling the entire way, Cucinelli said there wasn't anything in the world that could have kept him from making the trip north to receive his award.

"Nothing could have stopped me from coming, I would have crawled all the way up here if I had to," he said. "In fact, if it weren't for this broken hip, when that wonderful band started playing, I would have gotten ready to march."