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Pennsylvania guardsmen given first Catto awards for service

| Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012
Maj. Jonathan Bell
Maj. Jonathan Bell

A medal created more than 130 years ago to honor a murdered militia officer but never awarded in all that time debuted on Saturday when the Pennsylvania National Guard presented it to guardsmen from Indiana and Lycoming counties for their community service.

"I'm still shocked and humbled by it," said Maj. Jonathan Bell of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard and a chaplain in the 171st Air Refueling Wing in Moon. "I do what I do because that's what I do. I don't do it to earn recognition."

Maj. Octavius V. Catto, a Civil War-era member of the National Guard and civil rights activist, was shot to death in 1871 by a white man in Philadelphia as whites tried to keep blacks from voting on Election Day. Six years later, an all-white jury acquitted a Democratic Party operative accused of killing Catto, even though six witnesses named him as the shooter, according to the Independence Hall Association in Philadelphia.

Gen. Louis Wagner, who commanded the Pennsylvania National Guard's Fifth Brigade, authorized the medal shortly after Catto's death to honor guard members who were judged "most dedicated, brave and efficient in their duties."

But it was never awarded, the guard said.

It was rediscovered several years ago during a push to honor Catto, including erecting a statute to him in Philadelphia, according to the guard. Officials approved the medal for reintroduction into the state's military decorations system in December, to honor guard members who distinguish themselves through community support and public service.

Bell, 34, is the senior pastor of Blacklick Community United Methodist Church in Buffington. In January, he returned from a six-month deployment in Southeast Asia, and he was deployed twice to Antarctica and other overseas locations in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

The National Guard noted that Bell has helped several members of the community with home repairs, has collected cellphones and organized outreach efforts to poorer families in the community.

The National Guard also honored Bell for his work with the 171st's suicide prevention program. He said members of the wing undergo "intense training" to recognize signs when one of them is struggling.

"That has become a major push for us in the Air National Guard," Bell said. "It brings full circle the care and responsibility to our colleagues in the military, looking after each other and building up one another. If we see one struggling, we reach out to make sure we don't lose anyone."

His church, with a congregation of about 300, has promoted children's ministry, he said. Several years ago, the church started with a "handful" of students attending an after-school program; it now has grown to between 70 and 80 children spending 2 1/2 hours on Bible studies, tutoring and other activities.

"I firmly believe that as a pastor, the mode of evangelism that's most effective is not by words but by action. I try to live out my faith in every way possible," Bell said.

Bell was also nominated as 2011 Air National Guard Chaplain of the Year for his overseas service.

"We are so proud and humbled to have Chaplain Bell in our unit. He epitomizes what the Catto medal stands for and really puts light on the term citizen-soldier," said Col. Steven Painter, vice commander of the 171st Air Refueling Wing, in a statement. "He is always helping out the community in any way he can."

Bell and his wife, Anne, have three sons, Reed, 9, Jackson, 7, and Asher, 5.

The other recipient of the award was 1st Sgt. Kevin Bittenbender of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. Bittenbender of Montgomery was honored for his community service and retention and recruiting efforts.

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