For a military unit to reach its full potential, soldiers of every rank have to be on the same page. That’s why so much of boot camp is about following orders and becoming, in a way, just a cog in the machine. Individualism, top officers will argue, can fracture the necessary ‘group think’. And It has consequences.

Vietnam War veteran Leonard Matlovich dedicated his life to the US Air Force, but his heroic efforts were disparaged once he revealed a part of his personal life. Embroiled in a controversy that spread throughout the nation, Matlovich decided to enlist himself in a new battle. One that would ensure peace and love for all.

Born in Savanah, Georgia, in 1943, Leonard Matlovich was the only son of an Air Force sergeant. He and his sister grew up Catholic, hopping from one military base to the next. Due to his early exposure to military life, Matlovich called himself an “Air Force brat.”

Growing up, Matlovich knew way more than a child should know about the military. This made him a bit conflicted on what his future career path should look like. Nevertheless, despite his uncertainty, he joined the Air Force at 19 years old.

Once enlisted, he served three tours of duty in the military until he stepped on a land mine in Da Nang, seriously injuring himself. At the time, his incredible efforts didn’t go unnoticed.

His extraordinary efforts in Vietnam earned him a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. The soldier had already served 12 years by 1975, and he only continued to prove his undying love for his country for several years to come. His efforts wouldn’t go without controversy, however.

The Press Democrat

While stationed at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia, Matlovich acted as a technical sergeant as well as a race relations and drug abuse counselor. While he consistently performed good deeds, his inner demons got in the way of his self-assurance.

The Gay Almanac

In writer Lesley Oelsner’s 1975 The New York Times feature story about Matlovich, he touched on the soldier’s sadistic nature and cruelty towards marginalized peoples while in service. Over time, however, the behavior improved.

The Press Democrat

“What changed everything,” Oelsner wrote, “was a change that started, slowly, at first, in his attitude toward black people. He was in the service with blacks; then, on one assignment, a black man was his supervising officer. One stereotype after another stereotype started to crumble.”

Military.com

Another factor played into the change, too. See, once in the race relations program in Pensacola, Florida, he began to expose himself to the world of LGBTQ+ nightlife. He frequented gay bars, the beginning of Matlovich’s journey to self acceptance.

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“I met a bank president, a gas station attendant — they were all homosexual,” Matlovich told Oelsner, clearly reminiscing about the many types of people he’d met who just happened to share the same sexual identity. At that point, it was all a budding concept to Matlovich.

Legacy Project Chicago

He eventually came out as gay to his close friends, but remained in the closet when it came to his commanding officers. Matlovich eventually realized that both black people and gay people faced harsh discrimination, which was an eye opener for the previously prejudiced war hero.

Civil rights soon became a major theme in Matlovich’s life. He couldn’t help but a write an official “coming out” letter to his captain. Matlovich warned his superior that he’d better sit down to read the ominous letter. He ignored his warning.

When the captain asked him “What does this mean?” Matlovich’s response was bold: “It means Brown v. the Board of Education,” he said. He was very clearly referencing the historic 1954 Supreme Court case that ended racial segregation. 

Matlovich wanted to bring to his superior’s attention that the military was choc full of gay individuals (without outing anyone). His brave confession brought LGBTQ+ issues in the United States military to the forefront of consciousness.

USC News

The audacious proclamation led to a series of hearings. Sadly, Matlovich was offered a “general discharge” from the Air Force, which isn’t considered to be favorable, let alone honorable.

“I am initiating action against you with a view to effecting your discharge from the United States Air Force,” Lieutenant Colonel Charles R. Ritchie, the Langley commander, relayed to Matlovich. He was heartbroken; Matlovich adored his work in the military.

Maura McGurk

Six months after the whole “formal letter ordeal,” a three-member panel declared Matlovich “unfit” for military service. To make matters worse, Matlovich’s parents didn’t take the situation well… at first.

Letters to Juliet

After Matlovich broke the news to his mother, she refused to tell his father of their son’s sexuality. As a devoted, conservative Catholic, she thought God was “punishing” her, or that her dear son didn’t pray enough growing up. But in reality, it wasn’t a shock to her.

Boy Erased

His father discovered his son was gay after reading a newspaper article about Matlovich’s general discharge. Matlovich said his father cried for two hours in the midst of his consternation. After composing himself, he told his wife, “If he can take it, I can take it.”

Matlovich went on to be a civil rights activist for LGBTQ+ people, specifically fighting the military’s ban on queer people (which ended in 2011). In November 1980, Matlovich finally received an honorable discharge, which respected his incredible war efforts, and a $160,000 settlement. And his victories kept piling up.

Matlovich attempted to make a memorial for the late and legendary Harvey Milk at the Congressional Cemetery, demanded Northwest Airlines end its ban on HIV positive passengers, and was arrested in front of the White House for protesting President Ronald Reagan’s lax response to the AIDS epidemic.

PBS

Matlovich demanded LGBTQ+ issues be heard, and he assured positive steps regarding queer issues were made during his lifetime. Amazingly, his picture graced the cover of Time magazine in 1975, which made him the first openly gay person to be on the cover of an American news magazine.

Sadly, Leonard Matlovich died of AIDS in 1988, but he died a hero in many ways. Today, people, especially Vietnam War veterans, frequent his grave in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., which holds the crypts of several other gay veterans.

While Leonard Matlovich will go down in history as a fierce war hero and gay rights activist, his name may not ring as many bells as, let’s say, Harvey Milk. But there’s a slew of courageous soldiers you’ve probably never heard of — though you may have met one.

BBC

Each year, just over one thousand cadets enter the Air Force Academy with dreams of becoming true American heroes. One particular figure had supported these young men and women for years, though most of them never noticed him.

By the mid-1970s, Bill Crawford had worked as a janitor for close to a decade. Of course, his work at the Academy wasn’t exactly glamorous. He spent most of each day mopping floors and replacing dead light bulbs. But he did have a lot to teach those kids.

Outside the Beltway

Unfortunately, Bill rarely had the chance to converse with students. Juggling drills, classes, and mandatory meals, cadets found themselves with precious little free time. And most of them didn’t want to spend it befriending the janitor.

Air Force Times

But unlike most of his classmates, James Moschgat took notice of the older janitor. Though the quiet man “blended into the woodwork,” there was something about Bill that piqued James’ interest. He just couldn’t put his finger on what it was.

Still, James had bigger fish to fry — a huge amount of history homework, to be specific. He and the other cadets were yawning their way through a detailed history of World War II. But one page soon had James’ pulse racing.

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It described a bold private serving in the U.S. Army’s 36th Infantry Division during the invasion of Italy. In 1943, a burst of enemy machine-gun fire sent his entire platoon scrambling for cover. But he rushed forward with a bundle of grenades.

Without any assistance, the private charged up the hill and cleared out multiple Italian machine gun nests. His bravery allowed Allied forces to advance up through Europe, and Fascist Italy fell just two weeks later.

His moment of glory came at one of the most crucial junctures of World War II. America should’ve celebrated the private as a hero, however, he never got any kind of parade back home.

Immediately following the battle, that courageous young man was reported dead. Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent a posthumous Medal of Honor to the soldier’s father. Little did the President know he was missing one key detail.

Washington Post

It turned out the American champion was still alive! Axis forces captured him after his heroic charge and placed him in a German prisoner-of-war camp. Once the conflict ended, he simply returned home without any fanfare.

That story was thrilling enough by its own merit, but what really sent James’ head spinning was the name of the private. The book listed him as William J. Crawford. It couldn’t be the same man who cleaned the Academy bathrooms, could it?

A couple of days later, James worked up the courage to ask Bill about the story. After scanning over the book’s account, Bill nonchalantly said, “Yep. That’s me.” The young cadet’s jaw dropped to the floor.

Re-gathering his wits, James asked Bill how he ended up as a custodian. The older man said that once he left the army, he still had the desire to serve somewhere in his native Colorado. Not long after, he offered his services to the Air Force Academy.

Word of Bill’s exploits spread like wildfire around campus. In a matter of days, the mild-mannered janitor became an Academy legend, with amazed cadets going to him for advice and war stories. Still, James felt the war hero was underappreciated.

Twitter / Grant Young

For one thing, Bill never officially received his Medal of Honor. That bothered James even after he graduated in 1977. So when, a few years later, the recent alumnus heard a big guest was visiting the Academy, he spotted a chance to make things right.

Ahead of President Ronald Reagan’s address to the student body in 1984, cadets past and present pestered the Academy to recognize Bill Crawford in the event. They thought their pleas fell on deaf ears…until that fateful day came. Reagan called Bill onstage.

Pens & Patron

The President personally awarded Private Crawford the Medal of Honor and spoke about how he was the perfect model of leadership. At last, everyone knew Bill was a hero. His hometown of Pueblo even erected a statue in his honor.

The Pueblo Chieftain

Bill lived out the rest of his years in relative peace and quiet — just the way he liked it. When he passed away in 2000, he was buried in the Air Force Academy Cemetery. No other enlisted Army serviceman was ever laid to rest there before.

The Patriot Post

Although Bill left this world years ago, the tenets he stood for live on. Colonel James Moschgat — now retired — still speaks about the lessons he learned from the humble janitor.

The Durango Herald

James said that Bill’s life is proof that the real heroes aren’t always who you would expect. All service is worthy of respect. On top of that, there are countless ways for brave men and women to serve their communities.

Nobody knows this fact better than Bill’s brother-in-arms, Bob Williams. His neighbors admire him for his experience as a war hero and educator, but that isn’t all he has done.

The Quad-City Times

A resident of Long Grove, Iowa, the WWII veteran is known by most for his time as a high school teacher and football coach in nearby Davenport. Still, Bob has become a legend in his small town of 800 for an entirely different reason.

Every Saturday, the 94-year-old rises bright and early with one very special purpose in mind. Pulling on his signature yellow slicker, Bob begins down the street and heads over to his local Dollar General.

HERSHEYS / YouTube

Bob is a familiar sight as he enters the small discount store, and he greets each employee by name as he shuffles up to the counter. Pulling a crisp 50-dollar bill out of his wallet, the cashier knows exactly what the elderly man is here for: chocolate.

HERSHEYS / YouTube

Handing him two full boxes of jumbo Hershey bars – one with almonds, one without – the cashier smiles as Bob cracks open one of the containers and hands her a full bar. Gifting another to the customer in line behind him, Bob heads back out into the streets of Long Grove, determined to make as many days as he can.

FOX News

Known as “The Candy Man,” Bob Williams has been handing out jumbo Hershey bars to complete strangers in his community for the last 11 years. He was inspired to begin his mission of kindness after reading about a number of “pay it forward” initiatives being promoted across the country.

HERSHEYS / YouTube

Given his lifelong love of chocolate, Bob decided to make his trips to the dollar store worthwhile by sharing his sweets with others. Starting off with purchases of just three bars, Bob would keep one for himself and give the other two away. The responses he got were astonishing.

Alton Boys

“You’d think I’d given them keys to a new car,” Bob said of the reactions to his initial act of kindness. “Honest to God, these people were thunderstruck.” From then on, the veteran knew exactly what his “pay it forward” movement would be.

The Des Moines Register

Over the years, Bob has given out over 6,000 Hershey bars within his community. Though he typically reserves his bars for people that “look like they could use a smile,” strangers aren’t the only ones that can expect a sweet treat from this kind old man.

HERSHEYS / YouTube

Jan Hartwig-Heggen, a close friend of Bob’s, estimates that he’s given her between 200-300 chocolate bars, most of which he leaves at her front door. “That’s his signature,” she said. “You always know when Bob has been there.”

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Another lucky resident that receives frequent visits from “The Candy Man” is Darla Fay, who Bob jokingly asked to be his Valentine one February before handing her an extra-large Hershey bar. Since then, Bob has visited Darla almost every day, always making sure to have some chocolate saved for her.

“Do you remember as a kid, the excitement and joy you felt when you first saw all the gifts Santa left under the Christmas tree?” asked Darla. “That’s the feeling I get when Bob surprises me with a Hershey bar. It just makes me feel like a kid again.”

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So, how does the 94-year-old keep up with the demand for his satisfying sweets? By stashing them, of course! Bob is known to keep around 500 chocolate bars in his freezer at a time, and he always makes sure to rotate them out so that he’s gifting only the freshest chocolate.

FOX News

Unsurprisingly, Bob has become something of a celebrity in Long Grove, with nearly everyone knowing his name and his mission. Not a day goes by where cars don’t honk their hellos at him as they pass, and some residents will even approach him to exchange a hug and a smile for a delicious chocolate bar.

HERSHEYS / YouTube

Recently, a local magazine called Our Iowa did a feature on Bob and his remarkable hobby. After reading the article, one of Bob’s neighbors sent it to her son, who worked in Hershey’s corporate strategy department. He presented the story to company executives, and, right then and there, they were hooked.

Inspired by Bob, Hershey began their Heartwarming the World campaign, which sought to spread kindness and compassion nationwide. Taking a page from “The Candy Man’s” book, Hershey encouraged their employees to hand out chocolate bars to strangers, including those recently affected by Hurricane Florence.

HERSHEYS / YouTube

Not only that, but Hershey’s also reached out to Bob directly to make him part of their family. Cutting him a check for $1,500, the company promised to provide Bob with “all the bars he’ll ever need.” Now that’s a kiss!

With all the recognition Bob has received from his giving, he was able to purchase a nearby park bench to serve as a memorial for his late wife, Mary Elizabeth. Visiting the bench daily, Bob says that it’s really his wife who gives him his instructions to deliver his treats each day.

The Des Moines Register

But beyond it all, Bob’s mission is about more than just handing out Hershey bars to strangers. For “The Candy Man” of Long Grove, he hopes that his one small act of goodwill create an avalanche of kindness for people everywhere.

MSN

“I hope everybody picks up on that,” said Bob. “We need to lighten up and smile a bit more. Share whatever you can with people. There is no charge for that last bit of advice.”

Hersheys