The all-volunteer rifle squad that George J. Weiss Jr. started three decades ago has delivered the final salute at more than 56,400 military burials.
Weiss, a World War II veteran, has made it his mission to provide military honors to deceased veterans at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis.
President Barack Obama on Wednesday will recognize him and 12 other people with the Presidential Citizens Medal, the second highest honor that can be conferred on an American civilian.
Weiss' desire to start the volunteer rifle squad came after a friend died in 1977 and the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post couldn't provide the military honors at the burial. He pledged to start a memorial squad after he retired. And when he ended his 30-year career as a utility repairman with Ford Motor Co., Weiss formed a memorial squad of six people. Today, it's comprised of 130 men.
"We don't know 99 percent of the people we're burying — they're strangers," Weiss said. "But still, we've all been in the military, and we try to take care of each other."
This year's Citizens Medal winners have helped the poor and advocated for deaf children. One honoree is focused on conservation, while another helps young pregnant women with educational training. They also include a Colombian immigrant who regularly feeds about 130 people, and a 9/11 widow who has reached out to help widows in Afghanistan.
President Richard M. Nixon established the award in 1969 as a tribute to exemplary service by any citizen. The medal has been handed out to a range of people, from actress Elizabeth Taylor, to sports legend Muhammad Ali, and to Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, more than a decade before he died in 2003.
Obama looked to the public to find the winners of this year's medals — the first Citizens Medals he will give out as president. He asked people to nominate individuals who had helped their communities or country.
Almost every night for the past six years, Jorge Munoz, 46, has been delivering homemade food to homeless people and day laborers in Queens, New York.
Using donations and money he earns as a school bus driver, he feeds about 130 people a day from the back of his truck. That can translate to 22 pounds of rice, 20 pounds of pasta, 60 pounds of chicken, 150 cups of coffee and 160 pieces of bread in just one night.
His drive to give to others began with a simple word of advice from his mother: "Share."
"She always says, 'If you share, you're OK with God," said Munoz, a Colombia native who became a U.S. citizen in the early 1990's. He lives in New York City with his mother, sister and nephew, who have all pitched in to help over the years.
From tragedy to hope
The Sept. 11 attacks left Susan Retik widowed. But she turned her tragedy into hope for widows in Afghanistan — where the al-Qaida planners of the terror strikes found harbor.
Retik was pregnant with her third child when her husband David was killed on American Airlines Flight 11, one of the planes lost in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The outpouring support she received after she lost her husband led her to co-found Beyond the 11th in 2003.
"I just thought to myself, 'Who's helping them over there?' So many people here were helping us," said Retik, 42, of Needham, Mass.
The nonprofit's focus is twofold: to raise awareness about the hardships facing women in Afghanistan, and to raise money for programs that help widows in the country become more financially independent and send their children to school. The organization has given out about $600,000 in grants that have helped hundreds of women as a result, Retik said.
She said people would first ask her why she would want to help the Afghan women.
"I don't believe people are born with hate in their heart," she said. "We all want the same things in life. And you know, those things are health and happiness, and peace and security. They want those same things for their children the way that we do for ours, and it doesn't make them bad people because they happen to be born in a different country."
The other 2010 Citizens Medal recipients are: Daisy Brooks, of Chicago; Betty Chinn, of Eureka, Calif.; Roberta Diaz Brinton, of Los Angeles; Cynthia Church, of Wilmington, Del.; Mary K. Hoodhood, of Grand Rapids, Mich.; Kimberly McGuiness, of Cave Spring, Ga.; Lisa Nigro, of Chicago; Mary Ann Phillips, of Star Valley Ranch, Wyo.; Elizabeth Cushman Titus Putnam, of Shaftsbury, Vt.; and Myrtle Faye Rumph, 78, of Inglewood, Calif.