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Northwood Middle School teacher, students’ campaign to get soldier Medal of Honor ends with success

Northwood Middle School eighth-grader Ray Kleven poses as Medal of Honor recipient Garlin Conner with Justin Sasman, a former Northwood student, who worked on a campaign to get Conner the recognition.
Northwood Middle School eighth-grader Ray Kleven poses as Medal of Honor recipient Garlin Conner with Justin Sasman, a former Northwood student, who worked on a campaign to get Conner the recognition.

Justin Sasman was a sixth-grader in Jim Cooper’s language arts class when he first heard about the military exploits of 1st Lt. Garlin Murl Conner, whom Sasman and his classmates believed deserved America’s greatest recognition – the Medal of Honor.

Sasman, now a 29-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran, teared up April 19 while returning to Northwood Middle School in Woodstock to describe how he and his former classmates successfully lobbied for the U.S. government to posthumously award Conner with the Medal of Honor.

Sasman, of Wonder Lake, vividly recalled being told stories by Cooper, a Navy veteran, and the impression that Conner’s bravery left on him.

Conner, of Aaron, Kentucky, served in combat for 28 months through seven WWII campaigns in Africa and Europe. He was wounded seven times and earned seven Purple Hearts, and every other possible combat award, but is best known for his feats near Houssen, France, on Jan. 25, 1945.

According to U.S. Army records, Conner charged 400 yards into a German tank and artillery assault and fought alone for three hours while directing American artillery fire on his own position even as enemy combatants came within a few yards of his trench. He is credited with holding off 600 German soldiers, including six tanks, and killing as many as 50.

Conner, who died in 1998 at age 79, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, but his advocates said the chaos of war kept him from earning the deserved Medal of Honor.

“I felt he definitely deserved it, but I didn’t know what I could do about it,” Sasman said.

Cooper, now a Northwood math teacher, was inspired to take up the cause about 18 years ago after meeting Richard Chilton, a Green Beret from Genoa City, Wisconsin, who was gathering support from students across northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin to get Conner his recognition.

Cooper’s students maintained a long-running letter campaign that lasted through a few presidential administrations and the careers of several congressional representatives. Through those efforts, then-state Reps. Jack Franks and Mike Tryon sponsored a state resolution in support of the bid for a Medal of Honor. Former U.S. Rep. Melissa Bean sponsored a similar bill in Congress.

Over almost two decades, there were many stops and starts, but last month word began to get out that Conner would receive the Medal of Honor. President Donald Trump gave Conner’s widow, Pauline Conner, the news via telephone at the end of March.

“They finally got it right,” Cooper said.

Cooper and Sasman shared the news with Northwood Middle School students.

“It means a lot. I’m crying 18 years later,” Sasman said. “A lot of this is part of the reason I joined the service.”

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