On March 25, 1863, 150 years ago, the first Medal of Honor was presented to Jacob Parrott. Accordingly, Monday is celebrated as national Medal of Honor Day and Medal of Honor recipients will gather at Arlington National Cemetery to honor civilian heroes.
Those of us who wear that medal trace our roots to Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. On our rolls are names that will ever be a part of American history – Sergeant York, Charles Lindbergh, Douglas MacArthur, Jimmy Doolittle, Eddie Rickenbacker and Audie Murphy. And many others not so well known, who never became generals or had movies made about them but were every bit as heroic.
Our membership has included generals and privates, millionaires and paupers, politicians and poets, and prisoners as in POWs – and as in convicts. We cover the full spectrum of the American experience and have had leaders in every aspect of American culture. We are a group of citizens who not only defended our culture, but we helped design it.
We are not joined by wealth or rank or class – we are joined by patriotism – that is the glue the only glue that is strong enough to hold us together. We realize that what we wear we wear more so because of the mercy and grace of almighty God, and the good will and support of our fellow troops – than for anything we did as we struggled through the mist and mess of combat.
And we have been honored to death, but what we would like to see honored are the values that motivated us. We realize that the medal is only a symbol that word from Greek meaning half token, which, when joined with the other half, represents something far beyond itself. Our flag is not just a piece of cloth, as many assert. One half token is the Constitution. The other half token of the Medal of Honor is patriotism, essentially courage and sacrifice demonstrated on behalf of a country and people we love.
Emerson said every hero becomes a bore at last. We know that and in the time we have left we are working to keep from being bores. I saw a poll that said most of us would do things differently if we could do it all over again. I know I am not the man I would like to have been, but we have discovered we can do it all over again but not for ourselves – too late, yet none of us are failures if our children succeed and we can be helpful to our youth. We can do it all over again – through them.
And that is why we (only 80 left) still – at our age (average 75) – have some worth. We have put together a Character (the you, as known by God) Development Program. The highest form of patriotism is service to our youth, and we use our program to teach young people the importance of courage, sacrifice and patriotism. We define those ideals. We all go about it in our own way with our own unique experiences and have developed some great lesson plans and videos that are in schools across the nation and free online. We visit schools to teach the other half token of the medal, and one visit was highlighted recently by Brian Williams’ news program.
Many young people fantasize about being a hero. Our goal is to help them to become a hero, as are those we honor at Arlington, to know that celebrities are not necessarily heroes, that we should never idolize as a hero anyone who is not also a good person. Goodness is the other half token of heroism. Most see physical courage in the medal, but we teach that moral and intellectual courage, the other elements of the human trinity, are more important. Physical courage can win a battle or a ball game, but moral courage can change the world. Those who wear the medal know that it is harder to wear than it was to earn.
We encourage young people to labor to become heroes, to be both successful and happy in life. In my experience, it is courage that is the key to success in life; and sacrifice is the key to happiness. Most young people know that life is not fair. We are not all born equal, certainly not in terms of ability and opportunity. So what?
They need to know that, in the only way it matters, we are all born equal – only in the matter of courage are we all born equal. Each of us can have all the courage we want. You can’t use it up. God has made this marvelous gift infinitely available and it is the key to success, the great equalizer in life. Courage produces honesty and integrity. It produces great people from those born with little ability and less opportunity. Once young people realize this, they then know that mediocrity and failure are often the result of cowardice, but always the result of choice, not chance.
The key to courage is of course faith. The simple belief that there is Someone above and beyond ourselves – the source of all goodness – that there is something beyond the moment, something worth living and dying for. Fear is nothing more than our faith on trial – our faith under fire.
But all the success in the world is nothing without happiness. Paul Harvey, the great radio icon, once said that the two greatest symbols of sacrifice were the Cross of Jesus and the Medal of Honor. Sacrifice is essential to happiness, but there is no true sacrifice with a bottom line. It must be unselfish. It is love in action. All it does is increase our capacity for – more sacrifice. It also increases our capacity for leadership for fulfillment, indeed for happiness itself. Sacrifice is like lifting weights: The more you do it, the stronger you get – kind of like love lifting.
One’s capacity for sacrifice may be the ultimate measure of authentic human goodness.
But the bottom line is this: America cannot survive if our people are not patriots. Most veterans don’t believe we did America a favor by our service and sacrifice. We believe God did us a favor by allowing us to be born in this most exceptional country. We owe! I think patriotism is best illustrated by a story of a dear friend of mine, Sergeant Webster Anderson.
Early one morning in Vietnam, his unit was attacked by communist forces. In the initial attack, they pretty much took off both his legs. Yet he continued to fight. Later he caught a grenade, and it blew off an arm as he tried to throw it clear of his men. Still, he fought on. I flew in and picked up what was left of Webster after he had inspired his men to defeat the communist.
Miraculously, the medics saved his life, but his efforts to save his men cost him both legs and an arm and earned him the Medal of Honor.
Webster and I became close and some years later we were speaking at a school in Oklahoma. One of the youngsters asked Webster if he would do what he did again, knowing what it would cost him. Webster’s answer moves me to this day. He said, “Kid, I only have one arm left, but my country can have it any time they want.” Webster defined patriotism forever for those young people.
And that is my message to today’s youth on Medal of Honor Day, one message among many from our Character Development Program, from those who sacrificed their youth that liberty might grow old – over many years and countless battlefields, over the bodies of millions of dead, a message that the values of courage founded in faith and sacrifice based in love, will lead to an incredible capacity for service to others, to patriotism and eventually to the security, prosperity and peace of America. Peace is the ultimate victory of all warriors.