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Retired Marine Lt. Col. Tom Richards received the Navy Cross, but he was most proud of the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal that he received as an enlisted Marine, said his wife, Diane Richards.
"The Good Conduct Medal was something about which he was extremely proud because, I think, in his mind, it represented all the values and the ideals of a Marine," she said.
Tom died on June 18 of cancer. He spent much of his life after the Marine Corps working with the Legion of Valor, an organization for recipients of the Medal of Honor and service crosses. He also worked tirelessly to uncover people who falsely claimed to have received military awards.
He felt fakers disrespected those who actually served their country - both living and dead, Diane said.
"Tom was a very honest, straightforward and truthful man - a man of high integrity," she said. "The concept of misrepresenting one's self would be a violation of his values."
Tom found his calling in life when he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1967, Diane said. Although he didn't necessarily agree with the political reasons for the Vietnam War, Tom still felt obliged to serve his country.
"When he got into the Marine Corps, that just struck him and it lighted the path for the rest of his life," she said. "He was devoted and dedicated to the values of the Marine Corps, the camaraderie of the Marine Corps - certainly the history of the Marine Corps."
In addition to being an infantryman, Tom was also a renaissance man with a passion for military history, Diane said. He went on to earn a bachelor's and master’s degree in history and a Master of Business Administration.
"Tom was a lifelong learner," she said. "He constantly read on a variety of topics to continuously improve himself."
One June 5, 1969, Tom was a corporal with 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines in Vietnam when his platoon was attacked by a much larger number of enemy fighters. During the battle, he repeatedly risked his life by running through enemy fire to get ammunition for a machine gun. Although wounded by grenade shrapnel, he refused to be evacuated.
At a key point in the fight, Tom manned a machine gun to hold the enemy at bay long enough for his fellow Marines to repulse the attack. He was credited with killing eight enemy soldiers and preventing his unit’s defensive perimeter from collapsing. His bravery earned him the military’s second highest honor.
Tom was later selected for Officer Candidate School. He retired from the Marine Corps in 1995.
Later in life, Tom became an advocate for valor award recipients - and an adversary to those who lied about receiving military decorations. In 2009, he talked to Marine Corps Times about how he had discovered about 40 members of the Marine Corps Association Directory were listed as recipients of awards they had not earned, including the Medal of Honor.
At the time, the association's directory listed about 80,000 members.
"It just occurred to me: What if there are people in here who are claiming fraudulent Medals of Honor and service crosses?" he told Marine Corps Times for the 2009 story.
Doug Sterner, curator of the Military Times Hall of Valor, became close friends with Tom. The two worked together for years to out military fakers.
"Anything that had to do with the service crosses, Tom was on top of," Sterner said. "The guy was unbelievable. He was a workhorse."
After Tom moved to Virginia, he and Sterner would meet at a pub in Alexandria.
"I have a lot of good memories of just sitting there, visiting with him in Murphy’s Pub," Sterner said. "Of course, in later years, Tom looked so much like Bill O'Reilly that we had a lot of people there sitting there drinking with us in Murphy's Pub that thought they were drinking with Bill O’Reilly."