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July 06, 2005

Heroes, Living and Dead.

Comes forth retired soldier, occasional commenter, and emailer Blake, with this observation:

John,

I've had two congruent experiences in the past week that have left me wondering. Last Thursday, COL Roger Donlon (US Army, Ret.) spent most of the day sitting at a table outside the entrance to the Main PX at Fort Campbell, KY, selling copies of his memoirs. He was wearing his Medal of Honor. In fact, it was catching that flash of pale blue ribbon at his throat out of the corner of my eye that caused me to notice him in the first place. I took the time to stop and speak with him, and to purchase an inscribed copy of his book for my wife, who is also a Vietnam veteran, and who has taken to collecting that sort of thing. I was far from being the only person to buy a copy of COL Donlon's book that day, but there were far more people who just walked by as if he was just another nobody hawking something useless.

Yesterday, I heard of the death of Vice Admiral James Stockdale, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his conduct during seven years as a prisoner of war after his A-4 was shot down over North Vietnam. The news reports of his loss have all been very low key. And I'm beginning to wonder why real heroes have somehow gone out of fashion. The posthumous award of the Medal of Honor to SFC Paul Smith wasn't even a nine-day-wonder before people were back to worrying about Jessica Simpson's marriage.

[SIDEBAR: Would somebody please tell me who Jessica Simpson is and why I should give a rat's ass about her marriage?]

Part of it, I suppose, may be the natural modesty of most of the men and women who might qualify as heroes. In the past twenty-odd years I have been lucky enough to have met and spoken with four living recipients of the Medal of Honor. To a man, they deny that the actions for which they were awarded the nation's highest decoration for valor were in any way special or extraordinary. They all claim that they were just doing what was necessary, given the time, place, and circumstances. And for this we reward them with relative obscurity.

We ought to be holding them out as exemplars to our children, saying "THIS is sometimes what it means to be an American. If and when the time comes, we will expect no less from you."

Moodily,

Blake Kirk
SFC, USA, Ret.

To which I responded:

Blake - heroes have almost always been a flash in the pan in our society, unless they get the celebrity that goes with it - Audie Murphy comes to mind.

I can't really explain why, it just is. In some respects, it's a Good Thing - because too much hero-worshipping, especially of military heroes, can lead down a dark path. Ask the Germans.

That said, they *should* be remembered among the Brotherhood.

Colonel Donlon lives just up the hill from me. So does Leavenworth's other MOH holder, LTC Charley Hagemeister.

And when you enter Leavenworth you see their names on signs *before* you see Melissa Etheridge's (Leavenworth HS's deserved Hall of Famer...) but even here, more people would recognize Melissa than would recognize Roger or Charley. Except among the Brotherhood.

Blake responds:

Yeah, you have a point there. And maybe relative obscurity isn't entirely a bad thing. Lord knows the notoriety never made Audie Murphy happy.

What with being an 82nd vet and having lived in Tennessee for 21 years, I've always had a lot of admiration for Alvin York, who went right back to Fentress County and the valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf River as soon as the Army released him, and took up his life again. Alvin York once said that the best thing to come from his having earned the MoH was that he was able to trade upon his reputation to persuade the State of Tennessee to fund a comprehensive high school for Fentress County. Seventy-odd years later Fentress County is still so dirt-poor a place that the local tax base can't pay for a high school, and the Alvin C. York Agricultural Center is still the only state-funded public high school in Tennessee. I've seen worse memorials to great soldiers.


I've often wondered about the fascination with celebrity... which is usually, but not always, tied to wealth, in some form or another.

I wonder if heroes are only of seemingly passing interest, because they are so much more likely to be 'folks like us' in the final analysis. Just folks who rose to the occasion when the situation demanded - whereas celebrities are, well, alien.

Roger Donlon and Charley Hagemeister live in town, leading normal lives, despite their extraordinary, single day, where for one, transcendent moment, they stood as Giants Among Men. Celebrities, by contrast, live bizarre, fascinating lives... and, in the final analysis, rarely have what I would characterize as a truly transcendent moment, though in the world of fawning self-absorbtion many of them live... they believe they do - and that they are bestowed of a wisdom denied us mortals.

But the true heroes, well, they walk among us, avatars of ourselves. The First Responders, the teachers, the veteran next door, the citizen who who defied the criminal... they can be any one of us... and because of that, we simply don't *see* them. Because they *aren't* freaks. They're us.

Whattaya think? I'm being harsh on celebrity, and some of them have overcome real obstacles to get to where they are... but, well, it's been a while since a Scion of Society was awarded a Medal of Honor, pulled someone from a raging river, put themselves between the the Bad Guy and his victim. Not to say that they wouldn't, should the need present itself - but their lives, and their choices, just don't put them in those positions very often.

The *rest* of us live that... and, oddly enough, when one of them *does* run into something like that... well, it's so rare that it just *adds* to their personal cachet... again, perhaps, because it's so... alien.

Oh - and Jessica Simpson? At least she gives the troops a little eye relief!