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On March 25, 1863, 151 years ago next Tuesday, the first Medal of Honor was presented to Jacob Parrott. Accordingly, that day is celebrated as national Medal of Honor Day, and this year over two dozen Medal of Honor recipients will gather at Arlington Cemetery to honor civilian heroes. Those we honor are examples of true American heroes, inspirational to our youth just as we try to be through our Character Development Program.
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 includes a president, 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 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 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 goodwill and support of our fellow troops – than for any thing we did as we struggled through the mist and mess of combat.
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, a word from Greek meaning “half token,” which when joined with the other half represents something above and beyond itself. Our flag is not just a piece of cloth as many assert; the other 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. None of us is a failure 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 the few of us who remain 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.
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 spiritual 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 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 that 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 promotes honesty and integrity; it produces great people from those born with little ability and less opportunity. Once young people realize this, they know that mediocrity and failure are often the result of cowardice, but always the result of choice not chance.
The key to courage, of course, is 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.
Medal of Honor recipient Gen. Patrick Brady tells the inspiring, miraculous story of his days as a Dust Off air ambulance pilot in Vietnam. Get his newly reissued book, autographed: “Dead Men Flying: Victory in Viet Nam”
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. Pure sacrifice will only 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 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, Sgt. 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 Communists. 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, it’s 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, happiness and peace of America. Peace is the ultimate victory of all warriors.
If you are in the area on Tuesday, drop by the steps to the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington and meet some unique Americans.