When All-American end Don Holleder was asked by West Point Head Coach Red Blaik to take over the reigns as quarterback, he didn’t jump at the position. He told the coach he was not a good passer and had never played quarterback.
“I don’t want you as a passer,” Blaik is said to have responded. “You are a leader. I want you to lead the team to a successful season.”
True to form, Holleder followed put his own wishes aside and followed orders. It could not have been more of a success. He lead the Black Knights to a 6-3 season, upset the Naval Academy’s Midshipmen, landed on the cover of Sport Illustrated and was drafted by the New York Giants.
Instead of taking the lucrative contract and a career in professional sports, Holleder chose to serve his country in the Army.
His career took him to posts in Hawaii and Korea as well as back to West Point where he served as an assistant football player, recruiter, and scout. In 1967, Holleder requested to join the fight in Vietnam where he served as an Operations Officer. It was there that he died after being shot by a sniper in the Battle of Ong Thanh while voluntarily leading a rescue effort in a battle that pitted 142 Americans against 1,400 enemy troops who had the protection of underground bunkers.
For his courageous actions, Major Holleder was awarded the Silver Star but after nearly forty-seven years and an effort that involved more than fifty individuals, a Congressman and the Secretary of the Army himself, that award was upgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross – the second-highest combat award.
Speaking at a graveside ceremony in Arlington National Cemetery, one of the effort’s leaders, now retired Major General Leroy Suddath, praised Holleder for his uncommon dedication and leadership.
“Don Holleder was grounded in duty, honor, and country,” he said. “He was, by nature, a selfless man who subordinated himself to the greater good of others. He was an intrepid leader on the battlefield. An outstanding officer with all the qualities of generalship at the highest level, cut short by his demonstrated selflessness.”
Suddath said it would be impossible to thank everyone but singled out the efforts of Congressman Jack Kingston (R-GA) who fought to see the award upgraded.
“Congressman Kingston signed on with us in 2005 and stuck with us through thick and thin for these many years,” he said. “He played a major role in our collective success.”
Kingston first became involved in the effort after meeting with Suddath in 2005 when he requested the first review by the Department of the Army. The Department denied Kingston’s first four requests before sending the review to the Army Board for Correction of Military Records.
“Major Holleder’s story should inspire all of us,” said Kingston. “He was a figure bigger than life and should be remembered and honor by generation after generation.”
As the effort continued to meet resistance, Kingston took his plea directly to Secretary of the Army John McHugh who looked into the matter and was able to resolve the logjam.
“We wouldn’t be here today without Secretary McHugh’s gracious assistance,” Kingston said.
Stacy Jones, Holleder’s eldest daughter, accepted the award on behalf of the family.
“I have said before that my father would not have sought this award, nor the accolades afforded him since 1967,” she said. “Today I believe he would have been very proud of this concerted effort, and I believe it would have made him blush.”
Following the ceremony, Jones said the medal will make its way to the Holleder Center on West Point’s campus which was named for her father.
“This medal will reside at West Point in the display case at the Holleder Center, as a tribute to our father, but also as a tribute to the special fraternity that refused to allow him to be forgotten.”