They are decorated veterans who flew helicopters behind enemy lines to rescue wounded soldiers, led air strikes over fire-swept rice paddies and single-handedly destroyed an enemy bunker with a grenade.
But on Monday, those recipients of the Medal of Honor, the military's highest award for wartime acts of valor, came to Newtown to honor six women who lost their lives trying to protect their students when a gunman attacked Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14.
"There is no greater courage than stepping outside of oneself protecting others," said Paul W. Bucha, a Connecticut resident who received a Medal of Honor for acts of bravery in Vietnam in 1968. "In their ordinary lives doing their everyday jobs, the teachers and staff of Sandy Hook Elementary set themselves apart."
Each year, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society singles out civilians for acts of heroism. The six educators from Newtown were nominated by dozens of people. Most "had never met these women but were so moved by their unmatched courage in the face of unexpected danger,'' Bucha said.
Two of those women, Principal Dawn Hochsprung and school psychologist Mary Sherlach, ran to confront the gunman in the school's main hallway. Victoria Soto, a first-grade teacher, hid her students in an effort to protect them. Anne Marie Murphy, who worked with special education students, and behavioral therapist Rachel D'Avino comforted terrified youngsters as chaos erupted all around them. Substitute teacher Lauren Rousseau tried to hide her students and keep them calm.
Janet Robinson, who was school superintendent at the time of the shootings, said each of the educators made "the ultimate sacrifice" in an effort to save their young pupils.
Rousseau's stepfather, Bill Leukhardt, a Courant reporter, noted with bitter irony that two of her cousins completed tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. "They came home unscratched,'' he said, while Lauren went to work teaching first-graders and was killed. Now the young woman who was terrified of bats and spiders was being honored for her bravery by a group of war heroes.
The Congressional Medal of Honor Society is composed of recipients of the Medal of Honor. Four society members attended the brief ceremony at Newtown High School. The aging military men — there are just 80 living Medal of Honor recipients and their average age is 75 — sat on the stage of the school's auditorium, next to a representative of each of the six families.
Afterward, an emotional Hannah D'Avino, Rachel D'Avino's youngest sister, said the recognition was "overwhelming and amazing."
"For these people that are heroes and have received the highest honor that you can receive in the military to see my sister and the other educators as heroes ... it's just an amazing feeling,'' Hannah D'Avino said.
The family of Victoria Soto said it now has one more item to place in their Vicki room, a crammed space filled with gifts and other honors sent by people from across the globe.
"She needs a bigger room,'' said her mother, Donna Soto. And while the plaques, letters and stars named in Vicki Soto's honor are nice and the family appreciates each gesture, the medal presented by a group of war heroes is especially poignant, Donna Soto said.
"It's nice that people honor her and we appreciate it,'' Donna Soto said. "This was a special honor."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun