Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner and U.S. Congressman Chris Van Hollen, D-District 8, applaud as U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Brian Lein presents Marie Messner with the Bronze Star earned by her father, James Wivell for his valor as a combat medic in World War II
Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner and U.S. Congressman Chris Van Hollen, D-District 8, applaud as U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Brian Lein presents Marie Messner with the Bronze Star earned by her father, James Wivell for his valor as a combat medic in World War II (Jon Kelvey, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Marie Messner never got a chance to know her father, James Wivell. He died just shy of her third birthday in 1949, but not before he held helped liberate France, serving as an army combat medic in WWII.

So on Tuesday afternoon, when Maj. Gen. Brian Lein presented Messner a Bronze Star for her father's valor in combat and a purple heart for the blood he had left on the battlefield 70 years ago, it was more than just honoring father, but a way of adding to her few memories of him. Her eyes welled with tears.


"It was very emotional and very —" she said, her voice still breaking with emotion in an interview after the ceremony. "It was wonderful."

Messner was not alone. Almost a dozen members of her family, all from around the Thurmont, Emmitsburg area from which her father hailed had joined her for the ceremony in the Mount Airy office of U.S. Congressman Chris Van Hollen, D-District 8, including two of Wivell's granddaughters, four of Wivell's great-granddaughters and one great-great-granddaughter.

"Seeing my mom accept his medals was just — it was overwhelming for me emotionally," said Kathy Stevens, Messner's daughter. "I don't know a lot about him because he passed away when she was two and to hear the congressman speak about him, and the general, the stories — It just kind of brought him to life for a little while."

All the family had known of Wivell were his discharge papers and the few stories passed on to Messner by her mother. She knew for instance, that he had been survived being in a foxhole when a grenade exploded. That he had been a combat medic and had served for three years before being discharged in 1945 at the rank of Private First Class.

But Lein, the commanding general for U.S. Army medical research at Fort Detrick, had done some research on Wivell's unit and uncovered more of his story for Messner and her family.

Wivell had served in the 137th infantry regiment of the Third Army under Gen. George Patton during Patton's first incursion into German territory outside the town of Nancy, France, in 1944, according to Lein. It was mostly likely there that Wivell was shot in the shoulder while the 137th spearheaded the attack on heavily fortified German positions, taking heavy casualties.

Wivell was in the thick of it.

"He was a forward medic in that infantry regiment so he was somebody that was in a hospital like me ... He was very far forward," Lein told Messner. "When somebody gets hurt, even today, the first thing they call out for is 'medic.' That's what your dad, your grandfather, or your great-grandfather represented."

Wivell had earned the combat medic badge for his actions in combat, and the purple heart after being wounded, that much Messner had known from his discharge papers. But she had no idea that he had also earned a bronze star until just a few months ago, when another WWII veteran encouraged her to reach out to Van Hollen about getting her father's medals.

"They sent me an email saying that they had his medals including the bronze star. I'm like, 'The Sronze star isn't listed on his discharge papers and I don't want anything that he didn't earn,'" Messner said. "They said since he was a medic in WWII, he was very courageous and valorous and he earned the Bronze Star."

All soldiers that earned the Combat Medic Badge as Wivell did in WII also earned the Bronze Star, according to Lein, which is the fourth highest honor bestowed by the Army. Lein also presented Messner with her father's American Campaign and WWII Victory Medals.

"I only apologize that we were not able to present this to him," he said. "We are proud to wear the uniform today because people like your dad scarified and gave up a lot so that we are free."

There is no expiration date when it comes to presenting honors to those who have served their country, according to Van Hollen, who was joined by Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner in honoring Wivell's memory at the medal ceremony. He said it not only honors those that have served before, but sends the message to those that serve today that the debt their country owes them will not be forgotten.

"It's never too late to say thank you to those who have served this country for their courage and sacrifice," he said. "It's nice when you can gather a family and present something that was earned by a father, by a grandfather. It's certainly a debt that the country can make good on."


The WWII generation has been called the greatest generation because of the sacrifices they made, Van Hollen said, sacrifices that laid the foundation for freedoms we enjoy today, and the opportunity to bring together a family to remember their fallen hero.

"We stand on the shoulders of people like your dad," he told Messner. "That's why we're here today."

Reach staff writer Jon Kelvey at 410-857-3317 or jon.kelvey@carrollcountytimes.com.