Sep 15, 2010

True Honor

This past Saturday, we observed the ninth anniversary of the horrific events of September 11, 2001.  It is good that we have these patriotic days scattered throughout our calendar (Memorial Day, July 4, 9/11, Veteran's Day).  Because, honestly, if it wasn't for those day, we probably wouldn't give a second thought to all the soldiers out there daily fighting on our behalf.  I know that there is a great deal of argument over the rightness of the current military conflicts.  And this is hardly the place to engage in a battle over that - and I am hardly the person to begin that fight.  I am not a warmongering ultra-patriot that will defend every decision the USofA makes.  I am also not one of those people who appear to hate America so bad you wonder why they live here.

But I do think that as citizens of this country we have certain obligations.  We need to vote and be active in the political process.  We need to be educated and hold our government officials responsible for their actions and decisions.  We need to obey the laws - even if you think are moronic.  And we should show respect and gratitude for those people who have decided to put their lives in danger to defend others.  Realistically, none of us are immediate danger due to the situation in Iraq or Afghanistan.  But the concept of defending freedom is still at play.  And, perhaps, the service by these brave men and women of our military is even more admirable (and difficult) than in years past BECAUSE we are so unsure of the struggle they are fighting in.

When my dad fought in Korea, we had just come off a World War - where our freedoms were legitimately threatened.  America was at risk.  With that in mind, Korea was a legitimate threat as well.  We had seen what happened when the Nazis ran without control across Europe.  It was easy to see the Communists doing the same thing.  Volunteering under those circumstance was an easier choice - still not easy by any stretch of the imagination.  Now, though, these battles seem so far away.  The terrorist attacks of 9/11 showed us that the forces over there could hurt us.  But, I fear, we are starting to get complacent in our safety and security again.  That leads to forgetting the soldiers fighting.

A second major problem with our respect for soldiers is that we have this false version of a warrior projected through media and entertainment industries.  We have Jack Bauer, Jason Bourne, The Expendables, Batman.  There are these super-human monsters that can withstand vicious attacks and somehow dip into a reservoir of mega-strength to fight back.  I'm guilty of it too.  We've been watching Chuck on DVD this summer (along with Burn Notice).  In this world, spies get shot, stabbed, electrocuted, hit with tranquilizer darts and then hop up and keep fighting.  In one Chuck episode, a spy got shot with FOUR tranq darts before he was out.  In another one, a spy got shot in the back through a window with a shotgun and popped up a few hours later fighting.  He also ingested a deadly poison pill and woke up a few hours laters, got slammed between two massive metal sliding doors, and got beat up multiple times.  But he kept on fighting at every turn.  Another spy went through three severe beatings, got shot, and got shot.  But he never wavered - even at one point taking out nine guys to escape torture.

This is not realistic.  Last week, I was reading Gregg Easterbrook's excellent Tuesday Morning Quarterback article on ESPN.  In it, he bemoaned the number of hit man movies out there - probably eclipsing the actual number of hit men on Earth.  These people are able to kill without thinking and rarely get hurt.  Later on in his article, he had a letter from a med student in Pittsburgh who talked about this same trend.  He said people are frequently stunned at how painful bullets actually are.  They will be in horrible pain and telling their doctors, "This really really hurts.  I wasn't expecting that."  They see the heroes on tv get popped in the shoulder and shrug it off.  That is not realistic.  Bullets hurt.  They kill.  Our realization of that has been so numbed over the years, as we watched The Terminator have an entire clip of bullets pulled out of his back, that we don't even understand just what is war is truly like.

Then you read an article like this one on CNN.  (Yeah, I read CNN frequently.  It is the best formatted news site.  Sue me.)  This soldier, Salvatore Giunta, is the first living recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War.  There are only 3446 people who have been given this medal in the 234 years of our country.  In order to receive a Medal of Honor, you have to distinguish yourself in an extreme way in battle.  By reading those statistics, you see it is a very rare award.  Going through what led to past recipients receiving the award online, you see some truly amazing stories of bravery.  Here are some of those brief stories (from The Congressional Medal of Honor Society site:
  • In 2003, Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith distinguished himself near Baghdad International Airport. With disregard for his own safety, Sgt. Smith manned an exposed mounted machine gun allowing for the safe withdrawal of numerous wounded soldiers and the death of as many 50 enemy soldiers. Sgt. Smith was mortally wounded at this time. 
  • In 1965, Captain Ed Freeman flew his unarmed helicopter to aid a trapped battalion.  They were pinned down and he faced heavy enemy fire on each trip.  Other aid, rescue, and medical evac helicopters refused to enter the area due to the intensity of the enemy fire.  Captain Freeman flew FOURTEEN separate missions into this zone - evacuating wounded men, providing ammo and supplies.  It is estimated he rescued thirty seriously wounded soldiers in his missions.
  • Lt. John Finn was stationed at Pearl Harbor during the 1941 attack.  He secured and manned a .50 caliber machine gun in an exposed part of the parking lot, which was continually being strafed by enemy machine gun fire.  He was wounded multiple times, but refused to leave his post.  His actions had a major impact on the enemy planes (hard to estimate how much - but obvious that it did).  Even after he was forced to seek medical aid, he returned to supply and assist returning US planes.  
So, not just your basic, run of the mill heroism.  These recipients went far above and beyond the call of duty.  What about Staff Sergeant Giunta?  In 2007, his unit was attacked by Taliban soldiers.  He, of course, says he was just doing his job - a normal soldier doing his job.  Normal soldiers doing their jobs don't receive the Medal of Honor.  In reality, he was extraordinary.  The unit was returning to base when the Taliban attacked with AK-47s, large machine guns, and rocket launchers.  Several of his fellow soldiers went down.  So he charged the Taliban, throwing grenades at them and shooting his weapon.  He retrieved one of his fellow soldiers and dragged him to safety.  Then he noticed one of the wounded was missing.  He raced over the hill where the Taliban had been staging their attack and saw his fellow soldier being dragged away by two of the enemy.  He pursued, even though he was now completely cut off from his unit.  He killed one of the enemy and wounded another.  Then he sat there in the war zone and began providing first aid to his friend, who had been shot six times, until he was evacuated.  (The friend later died from the wounds.)  During all of this, Giunta was hit twice himself - one hit his body armor, one destroyed the weapon strapped to his back.  Their quick action drove off the Taliban that day, and saved lives.

When I read that story, it just made me think about how I would have responded in that situation.  The truth is, I never would have been in that situation.  I have never even considered military service.  I don't disrespect the military.  Quite the opposite.  I love the military and respect those who serve.  Perhaps the reason I never thought about joining was because I knew I couldn't do it justice.  I am amazed at those who serve and sacrifice.  I never want to become numb to the risk they face.  I don't want some goofy spy show to make me believe their efforts were not amazing.  There may have been a part of you that, when you read the account of Giunta's heroism, was not amazed.  I know at first that was my response.  "He saved a guy and another guy - shot some people."  But I was comparing it to an unrealistic scene where Chuck Norris takes out an entire squadron.  In real life, people don't go charging into the enemy, flinging grenades.  They don't race off alone over a hill into an entrenched location.  They don't run and man a machine gun and angrily fire away at fighter planes and soldiers.  They don't fly helicopters time and again into heavily defended jungles.  If that happened every day, there would be more than 3,446 Medal of Honor recipients.

I hope that we can take a moment and think about that.  Think about what these guys and girls are going through on a daily basis.  And it is more than just the battles.  They are far from home, missing out on time with their families, missing out on the things we take for granted.  And it is all for people they don't know and will never meet.  At least for today, don't take them for granted or view their sacrifice through the filter of Hollywood.  If you know a soldier or their family, thank them.  Give a small donation to the USO.  Volunteer at your local VA Hospital.  Or just spend a few minutes praying for them.  They deserve that level of honor.

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