The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest national award that can be awarded to a civilian. It dates back to July 6, 1945, when signed into Executive Order by President Harry S. Truman. The person is selected either by the President or recommended for selection and approved by the President for having made meritorious contributions to either the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, or either cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.
This year’s awardees cover a broad array of fields, and include: Former President George H. W. Bush; German Chancellor Angela Merkel; Georgia Congressman John Lewis; environmentalist John H. Adams; artist, educator, and civil-rights activist Maya Angelou; Warren Buffett, investor and philanthropist; artist Jasper Johns; Gerda Weissmann Klein, Holocaust survivor and founder of Citizenship Counts; optometrist and humanitarian Dr. Tom Little (posthumous); cellist Yo-Yo Ma; civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez; baseball hall of famer Stan Musial; NBA great Bill Russell; former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith; and current President Emeritus of the AFL-CIO, John J. Sweeney.
One of the lesser known of the awardees, Dr. Tom Little, made an enormous humanitarian impact in his endeavors to provide vision, dental, and mother/child care within the war torn regions of Afghanistan. Awarded the medal posthumously, Dr. Little, an optometrist, was murdered along with nine of his colleagues on August 6, 2010, when the Taliban attacked them in the Badakhshan area.
At the time they were returning home from a trip to provide eye care in a remote area of the country. Little was 62 at the time of the attack. According to the White House press release, Dr. Little had lived in Afghanistan with his wife Libby for nearly three decades while they raised their three daughters, all who were luckily at their home in upstate New York when the incident occurred.
During his time in Afghanistan Dr. Little ran the National Organization for Ophthalmic Rehabilitation, or NOOR, for the International Assistance Mission. For the program, he oversaw three hospitals located in major Afghan cities and several small clinics.
In the ceremony, President Obama recognized the sacrifice that Little gave to the country of Afghanistan, referring to him as a “humanitarian in the true sense of the word,” according to a report from National Public Radio. He oversaw three hospitals along with several smaller clinics and, in 2003 alone, his program was responsible for helping over 230,000 people and conducting over 14,000 surgeries. All totaled, during his life, Little provided care to millions of Afghans.
Dr. Little was truly deserving of this award. He worked to bridge the cultural gaps in order to provide services that would be otherwise unattainable in the area. Through these endeavors, he helped to work toward peace within the region and supported the current national interests of stabilizing the country.
“Executive Order 9586–The Medal of Freedom”, National Archives
“President Obama Names Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipients”, The White House
Mark Memmott, “President George H.W. Bush, 14 Others Receive Medal Of Freedom”, NPR
Larry McShane, “New York optometrist, Tom Little, 62, one of six American aid workers killed in Afghanistan”, NY Daily News