The USS Midway Museum paid tribute to Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD), San Diego and two Marine Corps Medal of Honor recipients at its annual American Patriot Award Gala. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of training excellence at MCRD San Diego, the prestigious award was presented to retired Marine Corps Colonels Robert Modrzejewski and Jay Vagas for their courageous and selfless actions in combat during the Vietnam War. 

Proceeds from this black-tie event continue to benefit Midway’s ‘No Child Left Ashore’ scholarship fund that helps thousands of students each year from under-served San Diego County schools. They study STEM curricula and participate in the overnight education program on board the museum.

“It’s all about the Marine Corps tonight,” said Terry Kraft, Midway’s president and CEO at the gala. “I recently attended a recruit graduation at MCRD. It was amazing to watch how these young men and women were transformed into the finest fighting force in the world. Congratulations to 100 years of excellence at MCRD.”

Marine Corps Brig. Gen. James Ryans, commanding general of Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, addresses attendees at the Midway American Patriot Award Gala.

As one of two main recruit training installation for the U.S. Marine Corps, MCRD San Diego has played a crucial role in shaping generations of Marines over the last century. The original recruit depot for Marines on the West Coast was commissioned in 1921 at Mare Island in Vallejo, Calif. It was relocated to its current base in San Diego in August 1923. It’s history is one of resilience, adaptation and dedication to producing highly-skilled and disciplined Marines. More than 1.5 million Marine recruits have completed their basic training at MCRD San Diego.

“I too have had the honor of seeing firsthand the training that takes place at MCRD,” said Laura White, president of the USS Midway Foundation. “To call it impressive would be a tremendous understatement. I’m so incredibly proud of our young Marines who are willing to defend our nation and our democracy around the world, and it all starts right here in San Diego.”

“We’re honored to be recognized,” said Brig. Gen. James Ryans, the commanding general of MCRD San Diego. “This year marks the 100th year of making Marines in San Diego. We’re proud to be part of the diverse San Diego community and I’ve never experienced an environment where you get so much support as you do in this town. While the city has changed over the past century, the strength of the relationship we have with the people of this city has only gotten stronger.”

The ability to hold the gala and honor American patriots each year is only possible because of the tremendous support that comes from Midway’s partners and sponsors. Their contribution also helps Midway support educational programs for San Diego students.

“I can’t thank our partners and gala sponsors enough,” said Craig Fisher, Midway’s director of partnership marketing. “Their gracious financial commitment not only helps us honor American heroes like Col. Modrzejewski and Col. Vargas, but allows us to continue to provide STEM educational opportunities to thousands of school children in our county.”

The highlight of the gala was the presentation of the Midway American Patriot Award to the two recipients of America’s highest military decoration.

Col. Modrzejewski was awarded the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry at the risk of his life above all overs during Operation Hastings in 1966. Vastly outnumbered by the enemy, the colonel led his company to victory over two and half days of intense combat. Although suffering painful shrapnel wounds, his unparalleled personnel heroism and indomitable leadership resulted in a significant triumph over a larger North Vietnamese force.

Marine Band San Diego marches to the stage to start the Midway American Patriot Award Gala.

“I’d like to thank the Midway for this honor, and I share it with all the Marines and sailors that I’ve had the privilege and honor to serve with,” said the 89-year-old veteran who served 31 years in the Marines. “Whatever your service is and what it will becomes depends on those who have gone before us, those who are serving now, and those who will serve in the future.”

While serving as the commanding officer of Company G, Col. Vargas led his Marines in fierce combat in late April to early May 1968 in the fortified village of Dai Do. Wounded by grenade fragments, the colonel inspired his men in a relentless advance against intense enemy fire. He saved one of his wounded battalion commanders and seven other Marines. Despite his serious injuries, he refused to leave the battlefield. For his gallant and selfless action in combat, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Terry Kraft, Midway’s CEO, and Midway board chair, Chris Neils, congratulates retired Marine Corps Colonels Robert Modrzejewski and Jay Vargas as the 2023 Midway American Patriot Award recipients.

“Every Marine that I served with was amazing,” said the 85-year-old veteran who had a 30-year Marine Corps career. “They were tough, dedicated, intelligent and loved their country. Every single one of them fought bravely.”

“You hear the term ‘great Americans’ a lot,” said Terry at the close of the gala. “But I can’t think of two greater Americans than the two we’ve honored here tonight. They have truly underscored the importance of service and sacrifice for their nation.”

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