WASHINGTON — Surrounded by 21 of the nation’s 80 living Medal of Honor winners, the father-son duo of Jesse Shaffer III and Jesse Shaffer IV, of Braithwaite, were the center of attention on a snowy Monday at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
The Shaffers received national Citizen Service Before Self Honors — out of four total recipients — for their efforts to rescue about 120 of their neighbors by boat after floodwaters from Hurricane Isaac last year overtopped the levees and many of the rooftops of the small community of Braithwaite in Plaquemines Parish.
“It’s amazing,” Jesse Shaffer III, 54, said. “It’s just been a great experience. We’re accepting this on behalf of everyone who did something that day (during Hurricane Isaac). It wasn’t just us. Before receiving their honors, the Shaffers participated in a wreath ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Jesse Shaffer IV, 25, said he fought back tears meeting all the Medal of Honor winners and hearing their exceptional stories. Being congratulated by them was an awesome experience, he said.
“It just reminds me of everything we went through and witnessed that day,” he said.
The Shaffers were nominated last year by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and, earlier this month, they were chosen from 23 finalists. The Congressional Medal of Honor Society and Foundation considered hundreds of nominees nationwide.
Monday was National Medal of Honor Day and the week also marks the 150th anniversary of the presentation of the first Medals of Honor for valor displayed during the Civil War.
Two other people receiving awards Monday were 15-year-old Marcos Ugarte, of Troutdale, Ore., and the Rev. Joe Carroll, of San Diego.
On the day Isaac struck, the Shaffers were monitoring the floodwaters and helping people evacuate. When the flooding started to become drastic, they sprang into action before 4 a.m. in a boat and started rescuing neighbors whom they knew had stayed behind.
Jesse Shaffer III checked on neighbors by phone while his son took to Facebook and social media to find out other people who had stayed behind and were stranded. Eventually, they teamed up with a couple of others and split up in two different boats to rescue people on their roofs or in attics.
The Shaffers were hard at work helping people while parish authorities, the National Guard and the U.S. Coast Guard were unable to enter because of the quick floodwaters. At one point, facing a full boat and some elderly people in need, Jesse Shaffer IV gave up his spot on his boat and waited on a rooftop for about an hour for the boat to return.
“It was fine,” Jesse Shaffer IV said of the experience. “I did think to myself, ‘Look at what I’m doing in the middle of a hurricane.’ ” But he said he never lost cellphone service and spent most of the time communicating with others and trying to figure out who else needed help.
The Shaffers received their medals from Medal of Honor winners Don Ballard, Harold Fritz Jr. and Leo Thorsness. Ballard said the Shaffers and other winners are “ordinary citizens who have proven themselves to be extraordinary.”