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Lt. Michael P. Murphy, USN

Memorial Day is the U.S. holiday for remembering the members of the armed forces who died while serving this nation. Originally known as Decoration Day, the holiday was begun after the Civil War to commemorate the Union and Confederate soldiers who died in that war. By the 20th century, Memorial Day had been extended to honor all Americans who died while in military service.

Nearly 1.4 million Americans have died in service to the nation, from the Revolution to the War on Terror. It is a long list. Too, there are nearly 41,000 still missing, largely from World War II and enough to fill Chicago’s Wrigley Field. American war dead approximate the present-day population of Suffolk County on New York’s Long Island.

One of those killed in battle, Navy Lt. Michael Patrick Murphy, was himself a son of Suffolk County. Lt. Murphy was a Navy SEAL who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his astonishing bravery and selflessness. His award citation reads, in part, as follows:

“Ignoring his own wounds and demonstrating exceptional composure, Lieutenant Murphy continued to lead and encourage his men. When the primary communicator fell mortally wounded, Lieutenant Murphy repeatedly attempted to call for assistance for his beleaguered teammates. Realizing the impossibility of communicating in the extreme terrain, and in the face of almost certain death, he fought his way into open terrain to gain a better position to transmit a call. This deliberate, heroic act deprived him of cover, exposing him to direct enemy fire. Finally achieving contact with his headquarters, Lieutenant Murphy maintained his exposed position while he provided his location and requested immediate support for his team. In his final act of bravery, he continued to engage the enemy until he was mortally wounded, gallantly giving his life for his country and for the cause of freedom. By his selfless leadership, Lieutenant Murphy reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

Lt. Murphy’s four-man team was discovered by goat herders, thereby compromising their mission to locate a senior Taliban commander. It was Murphy’s decision as the officer-in-charge to release the unarmed men and risk disclosure of their presence to the Taliban. The Taliban were in fact notified by the released herders, and a vicious firefight ensued. Badly outnumbered, the SEALs inflicted heavy casualties before finally succumbing to the overwhelming firepower of the enemy. In placing an unsecured cell phone call requesting urgent support, the exposed Lt. Murphy was shot multiple times. His last words on the call were, “Thank you.” He died on June 28, 2005, on that mountain with two of his SEAL brothers.

Lt. Murphy’s exploits are well chronicled in the movie Lone Survivor, as well as the bestselling book of the same title.

Thank you, Lt. Michael P. Murphy, for your sacrifice. Thank you, as well, for representing on this Memorial Day not just your fallen SEAL brothers, but those 1.4 million Americans who were also killed in action. Thank you for your willingness to risk all, and in doing so, your joining the list of the revered.

Our country was enriched by your life and shielded by your sacrifice.

I salute you. All of you on that long list. From Valley Forge, Gettysburg, Belleau Wood, Iwo Jima, Chosin, Hue City, Fallujah, and Asadabad. All of you on all of those battlefields, and at sea, and in the air, all of you who gave that last full measure. Let us stop and honor you for the way you have honored us. May you rest in peace.

Semper Fi.

 

01-29-2010 12;30;27PM

The following is the eulogy I delivered at my mother’s funeral on March 7, 2015:

On behalf of the extended Gillis/Hughes family, I’d like to thank all of you for your kindness and well wishes, and especially for your presence here today. And so I’d like to offer the following as a remembrance, of sorts, with great love and affection for a little lady who was truly one of the giants of my life.

Evelyn Rebecca Hughes Gillis: Daughter, sister, sister-in-law, mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Among family, she answered to Evelyn, Aunt Evelyn, Eve, sis, Momma, and Memomma.

Today we lay to rest this kind, gentle, Godly woman who loved her family and friends without condition, who served her church to her fullest, and who provided an anchorage of love and stability in a great number of lives, including, and most especially, my own.

Like many of you, the earliest images I retain in my memory involve my mother, in one form or another. She taught me about the Christian faith and the way it has shaped our family’s history. She stressed to me the value of education, and the importance of honesty and integrity. She gave me an early appreciation for the Big Band music of the Forties, and consequently any band of my own era which featured a horn section had me at the get-go. She broadened my world by teaching me about reading, about the joy of books and the power of the written and spoken word. She taught me about the kinder, gentler things of life, and then she turned around and taught me the finer points of fist fighting with the admonition that I use my new skill as needed, but always as a last resort. She took care of me when I was sick or injured, even when I was faking it, and I still associate the taste of her ginger ale with my being ill. She helped jumpstart my own lifelong love of history when she took me to see Gone with the Wind in the same downtown Atlanta movie theater where, as a teenager some years before, she had witnessed the actual live premier. She confessed to me that actor Clark Gable was her guy, and we made it a point to keep that little morsel a safe distance from Clarence. And I’ve never yet been able to see Gable in one of his movies without instantly thinking of her.

She told me often about the years of World War II, about the uncertainties and hardships, and especially about the way the nation pulled together in shared sacrifice. She told me about Russell High School, and the way the boys went into military service immediately upon graduation. She told me about the good people she worked with at Western Union during those war years. She spoke often about how much she loved and admired her own mother, our beloved Mamaw. She related to me what it was like as a young woman to suddenly find her family without a father, when he died and left behind Mae , Evelyn, Jack, Henry, and Jimmy in the prime of his, my grandfather’s, life. She told me these things without any self-pity or bitterness, but as a better way for me to understand who we were as a family, our history, and thus my history. And how sometimes we just had to deal with things as they are, as opposed to fretting about how we wished them to be. That bit of wisdom has served me well, never more so than when we were confronted with the brutal reality of the Alzheimer’s.

She allowed me to make mistakes without ever berating or humiliating me further. And as a matter of undeniable fact there was something about her that caused me to always, always fess up and tell the truth when I had misbehaved, even when I knew that a large dose of unpleasantness would eventually be arriving through that kitchen door. She taught us the great truth that although we all have freedom of choice, none of us has freedom from consequences.

As I got older, I saw how she and my dad worked and sacrificed so that Ben and I could attend college, something they themselves never had the opportunity to do. And I remember how overjoyed she was when the grandkids started arriving. I’m grateful she got the reward of grand-and great-grandchildren to enjoy and spoil and show just what a loving and classy Family Matriarch she truly was. And I’m likewise grateful they got the reward of knowing her.

That she was one of a kind is without question. She fussed over the appearance of her hair. She was picky about her attire. Even near the end when she was very ill, and had in her possession nearly as many pairs of navy-blue slacks as does the carrier USS Nimitz, she let us know she didn’t care for the brown slacks that we had quietly slipped into her wardrobe. “Must be somebody else’s,” she remarked dismissively, much as she would if the slacks had been made of the very finest of possum fur. Debby winked at me and said softly, “I guess we’ll stay with blue.”

Throughout her entire life Momma could never pronounce words like “handkerchief” which came out “hanchekuff”, or “sauce”, which came out “salts,” and she often dropped the “g” from words like pudding, which of course became “puddin’.” And she sometimes liked to add a “You know” when she would finish a sentence. But what she could say was the phrase “When are y’all comin’?” which never came later than the third sentence of any conversation I ever had with her when I called from goodness-knows-where to check in. And she greatly surprised us when, after becoming a resident in the Alzheimer’s unit, she would from time to time utter a profanity or two that she must have picked up from one of her saltier fellow residents (or maybe from one of her eldest son’s novels). If she had heard such a word from me as a child, she would have threatened to wash my mouth out with soap. When the roles were reversed, however, I just smiled and let it pass.

She was never more beaming or buoyant than when she had her extended family in her home on Wood Trail Lane, with all the attendant food and noise and good tidings that enveloped and uplifted every single one of us. She loved Christmas more than anyone I’ve ever known, and she would start singing “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” right after the 4th of July. Michael McDonald sings a Christmas song entitled “House Full of Love” which is what I’m reminded of when I think of Momma’s Decatur home. That description was never more evident than during the holidays when the house was full of Gillises and Hugheses and their derivatives, with the loud laughter, tall tales, ham, turkey and turnip greens, mahogany and coconut cakes, Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets, touch football in the front yard, the ladies in animated conversation in the living room and the gentlemen falling open-mouth asleep in the den, looking every bit as if they’d all been gassed. It was in every way, and on every day, truly a House Full of Love. And the one who gave it that texture and richness of flavor is the one we so honor today.

As she neared the end of her natural life, I would often hear caregivers and others remark what a sweet, considerate lady Miss Evelyn was. Her kindness, unselfishness, and courtesy toward others were noticed and appreciated. Don’t confuse her gentility with a lack of good ole Southern toughness, however. In the last third of her life, she overcame colon cancer, a heart attack, multiple skin cancers, became a widow, survived two broken hips and the necessary hip-replacement surgeries, and bravely fought Alzheimer’s Disease well past the averages. Some of her parts may have broken easily, but not so her will. Through it all, she never lost her unwavering love for her family. She was a great treasure to those of us who knew and loved her, for to know her was indeed to love her. And while her passing leaves a hole in our family and in our hearts, she’s left far more by her living than she’s taking in her leaving.

The writer Christopher Buckley noted at the passing of his own mother, “There is an apparent universal aspect about parental mortality—namely, that no matter how much you prepare for the moment, when it comes, it comes at you hot, hard, and unrehearsed.” Mr. Buckley’s words could hardly be more descriptive.

In Proverbs 31:10, the question is asked, “Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies.” Evelyn Gillis was, by any objective measure, a virtuous woman—as a wife, mother, friend, relative, church member or secretary. She was a beacon of light, an unselfish giver of her Labors and her Loyalty and her Love.

The American poet Emily Dickinson wrote:

“I had a jewel in my fingers—

And went to sleep—

The day was warm, and winds were prosy—

I said ‘Twill keep’—

I woke—and chide my honest fingers,

The Gem was gone—

And now, an Amethyst remembrance

Is all I own.”

Rest In Peace, Mom, and know that, as our Gem, our remembrance of you is a great and abiding gift. But it’s by no means all that you bequeath us. The values and traditions you handed down will remain with us and endure for generations to come. And the love you showered so easily upon us is returned in even greater measure, both by those you leave behind in an earthly sense, and by those you now join in our Father’s Kingdom of Heaven. And yes, I can hear you softly saying, “When are y’all comin’?”

 

hard-hats

 

Last week a State Department spokesperson, in an interview about U.S. policy concerning ISIL, asserted that we cannot kill our way to victory over this depraved, ruthless terrorist organization. Instead, we should look over the near-and-medium term at the root causes for the disaffection of those who are beheading, burning alive, shooting, or tossing from tall buildings thousands of men, women, and children, many of whom are innocent non-combatants. The spokesperson went on to suggest that it was a lack of opportunity for jobs that contributed to the swelling ranks of the terrorists.

Soon thereafter, when pressed over the comments, the spokesperson admitted the painfully obvious—that a nuanced message of such depth was beyond the understanding of some, i.e., we coarse, countless, witless American rubes. You know, the very ones who cling to their guns and religion as if their lives and souls depended on it. The same ones the elites in Washington (or elsewhere) scoff at and hold in contempt for their simpleminded patriotism or their service in the armed forces or their belief in individual responsibility.

Despite my lack of erudition, now that I’ve given the matter a bit of nuanced thought, I see exactly what the spokesperson meant. With your indulgence, I’ll explain to my fellow unwashed the fundamental understanding of the issue by our United States Department of State. It is as follows:

  • Winning a war by shooting and killing the enemy is outdated. Besides, now that bin Laden is dead (I know, I know, he was shot and killed), “enemy” is a harsh and relative term, as is “war.” Besides, war means armies and killing, and we can’t win by killing. Besides, what is “winning” anyway? Besides, where there’s a winner there’s also a loser, and losing is demeaning. Besides, it’s really not our problem anyway. Follow the logic?
  • A root-cause analysis will show that a lack of economic opportunity is responsible for young men of Middle Eastern origin in the age range of 18-26 being enticed into joining terrorist organizations and beheading or burning people alive. This is the key element we must address. American business can play an important role here and at the same time make a fair profit (but what is “fair” anyway, and for whom?).
  • Religious ideology plays no part in any of this unpleasantness. It’s not driven by ideologues but by criminals, and that, my friends, is settled science. It is therefore a matter of law enforcement. Jobs training and rehabilitation are the critical needs here, and perhaps also James Taylor. The availability of good-paying jobs with medical, vision, and dental care, and free contraceptive care (failing that, good maternity-leave policies) will bring peace and goodwill to the region. The enormous union dues won’t hurt.

So, there you have it. Got it? Glad I could help.

ChurchillI had the rare pleasure yesterday in an Atlanta museum to get a close-up viewing of 30 paintings from one of the most consequential figures in modern history. No, his name was not Monet or van Gogh or Picasso, and he was not recognized as much for his art as for his political career, writing, and oratory. Many of the 30 paintings that I viewed have never before been on public display, comprising but a few of the 500 works he produced in his lifetime.

So who is this painter? Or, more aptly, who is this famous person?

He is Winston Churchill, and one could easily make the argument that he was not only a consequential figure of the 20th Century, but indeed the consequential figure of the previous century. He helped save the world from totalitarianism as a British politician, more specifically as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during World War II. His soaring oratory inspired not only the people of the British Empire and his close American allies, but freedom-loving people everywhere.

On painting, he was quoted as saying, “I know of nothing which, without exhausting the body, more entirely absorbs the mind. Whatever the worries of the hour or the threats of the future, once the picture has begun to flow along, there is no room for them in the mental screen.” It was in his painting that he found relief from the strain of political life and the growing menace of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Many of his paintings are oil-based impressionist scenes of landscape, and many were painted while he vacationed in the South of France, Egypt, or Morocco. His easel and other artifacts were also on display and helped to personalize the exhibit all the more.

Churchill was not only a painter and great wartime political leader, but he was also a writer and historian. He was prolific as a writer, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.  In a BBC poll of the “100 Greatest Britons” in 2002, he was proclaimed “The Greatest of Them All” based on approximately a million votes from BBC viewers.

The paintings are good, much like the results Winston Churchill achieved in his many other endeavors. But what made the exhibit most enjoyable to me was that the paintings came from the head, hand, and brush of the incomparable Winston Churchill. For me, that was the treat that exceeded all else and made the trip entirely worthwhile.

The paintings are on display at the Millennium Gate Museum in Atlanta, through February 1, 2015.

Sgt. Walker and me

Staff Sergeant Floyd Walker, United States Marine Corps, was my Platoon Sergeant when I entered Officers Candidate School at Quantico, Virginia, in March, 1970. He was a career Marine, tested in combat and serious about his role of teaching (and screening) young officer candidates. Sgt. Walker was tough, smart, and fair. He was determined to give everyone an equal chance to succeed, but early on he told us that, if history held, fifty-percent would likely not make it through the ten-week program.

We began with 54 and finished with 27.

The very first night at OCS, after a day of shouting, processing, and more shouting, I still remember Sgt. Walker telling us that we were now in a state of culture shock, and he then ordered us to write a letter home and tell our loved ones that we were okay, and that we “wanted for nothing.” I wondered if the other candidates felt as I did, that is, “What have I gotten myself into?”

Sgt. Walker pushed us hard during those ten intensive weeks. He evaluated our academic progress, our military and physical skills, and especially our leadership abilities. He bluntly informed us that he would not recommend a candidate for commissioning as a Marine second lieutenant unless and until, in his professional judgment, that same candidate could lead him in battle. That seemed an impossible standard, but as we learned over time, impossible standards are rarely impossible; they just take a little longer. Marines have a long history of doing the impossible, which was precisely Sgt. Walker’s teaching point.

Sgt. Walker was the best Marine non-commissioned officer I came across in my three years in the Corps. I never saw him again after leaving Quantico, but I thought of him often. I still think of him. And so on 10 November, the birthday of the Marine Corps, I think of all the Sgt. Walkers over all the years who have trained Marines to become the finest fighting force in existence. They trained those Marines, as Sgt. Walker trained us, by demanding excellence, and commitment, and sacrifice. No shortcuts, no coddling, no excuses. They trained those Marines to go and do the impossible, if necessary.

And for 239 years, that’s exactly what Marines have done. And still do.

Sgt. Walker’s salute was the first I received the day of our commissioning. In the above picture. Sgt. Walker (at left) is holding a folded handkerchief containing 27 silver dollars which, by tradition, the new officers gave him after that first salute. Thank you, Staff Sergeant Floyd Walker, for what you did to enable me to earn that salute. And thank you for giving me an example of everything a U.S. Marine should be.

I wish all Marines a happy birthday!

Semper Fi.

 

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What makes a great communicator? What separates the best from the rest? What is it about their persona or message that moves people and creates action?

I would suggest that it all starts with a mastery of and a comfort with the spoken word, along with the ability to express ideas clearly. I would also suggest that a high degree of sincerity and trustworthiness is likewise applicable. Finally, it’s always helpful to know what you’re talking about.

Here is a list of 10 people from the 20th and 21st Centuries whom I would suggest belong on any list of great communicators. They are in no particular order:

  1. John Wooden. One of the most decorated coaches of any sport, Wooden helped transform the lives of hundreds of young men that came into his basketball program at UCLA. He is remembered not only for winning 10 NCAA national championships in 12 years, but for the discipline he demanded from himself and his players.  Wooden was renowned for his short, simple inspirational messages to his players, including his “Pyramid of Success” book.
  2. Winston Churchill. At the onset of World War II, England was in very real danger of being invaded and overrun by the seemingly invincible Nazi war machine. Churchill inspired his island nation not only with his memorable, magnificent words, but with his stubborn determination and indomitable courage to repulse the Germans and see the war through to a successful conclusion. And in the end, he was the leader who prevailed.
  3. Billy Graham. This Southern evangelistic preacher has taken his uplifting message of the Gospel to the world’s masses, in the most literal of senses. Dr. Graham has spoken to and influenced millions of people, of different cultures and faiths, of all ages and backgrounds. He has been friend and counselor to presidents and paupers, and has often served as a steadying, comforting influence during times of national tragedy.
  4. Ronald Reagan. The 40th President of the United States was often referred to as The Great Communicator. A trained actor, Reagan served as Governor of California before seeking national elective office. His wit, humor, and insight were used to great effect in his speeches, and his personal charm played no small role in many of his legislative successes. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” is one of his more famous quotations.
  5. Jack Welch. One of the Captains of Industry, this Chairman and CEO of General Electric took his famous company to record levels of growth in revenue and profits. Welch’s messages were replete with references to the need for unremitting continuous improvement, and his successful Six Sigma initiative within GE was, among other processes, copied by many business leaders around the world. He earned a reputation for his brutal candor in meetings with executives.
  6. Martin Luther King, Jr.. Dr. King’s message of nonviolent social change brought to the American public’s consciousness the pressing need for equality of all people, regardless of race. Dr. King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial has been elevated to one of the great pieces of oratory in American history. His ability to articulate the desires of minorities for social and economic justice, and the rightness of the cause, became the pivotal driver of the 1960s civil-rights movement.
  7. Walter Cronkite. Journalist Cronkite was often described during his days as evening news anchor at CBS as “the most trusted man in America.” From his nearly tearful reporting of the news of JFK’s assassination to his eventual description of the war in Vietnam as unwinnable, Cronkite served as a primary source of weekday news to millions of Americans. “And that’s the way it is,” was his trademark sign-off at the end of his newscast.
  8. Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli Prime Minister is a strong, passionate leader with an unwavering commitment to the survival and strength of the Jewish state. Netanyahu is the first Israeli prime minister born in Israel after the establishment of the state. His oratory skills are considerable, as is his ability to argue a point gracefully while pointing out the errors of those with whom he disagrees.
  9. Oprah Winfrey. According to some sources, media-icon Winfrey is the most influential woman in the world. Her self-improvement and self-help themes often characterize her talk-show content, much like group-therapy sessions. She has overcome adversity at many points in her storied life, and her often emotion-centered show content has dwelt with her many struggles.
  10. Mrs. Margaret Davis. My wonderful high school English teacher. She was simply the best. Do you have a memorable teacher you could add to this list?

 

Kelly Tough

September 4, 2014

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With all that’s going on in the world today, it’s worthwhile to take a moment to reflect upon and appreciate the struggle of a man who is tough, Kelly Tough actually, and who has been in the fight of his life. He has battled cancer and won, and he did it with a faith and bravery that those of us in good health can only hope we would exhibit were we to find ourselves in similar circumstances. He has been an inspiration to others throughout most of his adult life, but now he inspires in a different way. Now he inspires not as a high-profile professional athlete, but as a decent, caring, all-too-mortal human being who gets dealt a difficult hand and does his best to deal with it.

His name is Jim Kelly.

You may remember that name. He is the former Buffalo Bills quarterback who was enshrined in 2002 into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Kelly guided his team to 4 Super Bowls, and in 11 seasons in the NFL he passed for 35,467 yards and 237 touchdowns. In 1994, I was fortunate enough to see Jim and his Bills face the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXVIII in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. Ironically, Jim played his college football at the University of Miami where Mark Richt, the current coach of my beloved University of Georgia Bulldogs, played backup quarterback to Kelly.

In 2013, Jim was diagnosed with cancer in his upper jaw. He had surgery and was pronounced cancer-free thereafter, only to have the cancer recur in March of this year. He then began a debilitating regimen of radiation and chemotherapy treatments, and his survival was anything but assured. But in late August, doctors announced that Jim was again without any trace of cancer.

Cancer isn’t the only tough blow Jim Kelly has endured. In 2005, Jim and his wife Jill lost their 8-year-old son Hunter to Krabbe disease. Kelly established the non-profit Hunter’s Hope to increase public awareness on behalf of Krabbe patients. As well, The Hunter James Kelly Research Institute was founded at the University of Buffalo in 2004 to study myelin and its diseases.

Professionally, the public Jim Kelly has always graciously dealt with the fact that his Buffalo Bills appeared in 4 Super Bowls without a victory. He would have preferred a different outcome—of course, he’s a fierce competitor—but the plain fact is that Kelly got his team into the sport’s biggest game 4 times. Not one and done; not twice; not even thrice. But 4 times! Similarly, some have scoffed at the fact that the Atlanta Braves won only 1 World Series in their 14 consecutive division titles. C’mon, man. How many pro athletes never get a chance at a single Super Bowl appearance or a postseason chance at a World Series? Kelly’s NFL career was one of achievement at a consistently high level, sustained over time, and well enough regarded to have earned him a place in the Hall of Fame.

Though I don’t know Jim personally, I am inspired by his dignity and his courage. Kelly Tough is his family motto and it’s no misnomer. My son and his family live in Buffalo and are friends with the Kellys. My grandson played quarterback in youth football for Jim’s brother Dan, and attended Jim’s football camp. There is a connection between Jim’s family and mine, a connection based upon friendship, faith, and, of course, football.

I’m pulling for Jim Kelly to remain cancer-free. He has a terrific family, the adoration of his cherished city of Buffalo, and plenty of work left with Hunter’s Hope. He has much to live for.

Way to go, Jim. Stay Kelly Tough. Stay an inspiration to so many of us. Stay Jim Kelly.

 

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An investigation led by a former U.S. Attorney has revealed that General Motors knew about a safety defect in its ignition switches for a full decade but did nothing to fix the problem. Thirteen people died in accidents related to the defect. This is the same General Motors that American taxpayers lost over $11 billion from the 2009 federal bailout. An issue of ethics or negligence? Or both?

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has come under intense scrutiny after reports uncovered the deaths of dozens of veterans who died waiting for care. The VA has allegedly been manipulating data to meet performance goals, and the resultant payment of hundreds of thousands in bonuses reflects a systemic deterioration in the culture and performance of the organization charged with caring for the nation’s veterans.

News from Atlanta revealed that 35 teachers, principals, and other education leaders of Atlanta Public Schools have been charged with being part of a cheating ring where test sheets were altered or fabricated and test scores were inflated. It is one of the largest cheating scandals in U.S. history.

Lance Armstrong admits he cheated, lied, denied, and bullied during his career as a cyclist in which he was the winner of seven Tour de France titles. He has since been stripped of those titles.

The Internal Revenue Service has selected conservative political groups applying for tax-exempt status for additional scrutiny in what appears to be a partisan political use of the IRS. There is considerably more than a scintilla of evidence to make Americans rightfully uncomfortable with this dangerous abuse of power.

A search of the internet finds that there is no shortage of lists of the Most Corrupt, to include states, governors, congressman, cities, and companies. Americans are fast losing confidence in such long-standing institutions as federal and state governments, the press, the church, and business.

Are these ethical lapses a reflection of a corrupted and value-diminished culture? Only to a limited degree, in my opinion. Our capitalist system with its large sums of money has, and always will, attract criminals and rogues. Our nation is divided politically, and a win-at-all-costs mentality seems to exist. These issues are not unique to these times, however.

Have Americans become too cowardly or disinterested or disenfranchised to smoke out those of low ethics? I don’t believe so, as evidenced by the whistleblowers in the VA and other scandals.

Are the ethics problems seemingly so widespread in the public and private sectors that a feeling of powerlessness among ethical, law-abiding Americans has come to prevail? Perhaps, but Americans also know they have the power of the ballot box or the power of the consumer dollar.

So, are the ethical lapses in America the new normal, or is it just an aberration?

It’s an aberration, in my judgment. I suggest that the heart of the problem is an abject failure of American leadership. Our elected officials are viewed negatively in near-record levels. Our current president is on a pathway to being viewed as the most incompetent in the nation’s history. His credibility as a truthful, skillful executive barely registers any signs of life whatsoever. The person at the top in any government, business, or military organization sets the example. And it’s a better example this nation very badly needs, across the board.

Leadership may not solve all of America’s ethical problems, but an absence of leadership will certainly compound them.

 

Cruising in Alaska

June 23, 2014

Tail of a Humpback Whale in Frederick SoundMy wife and I were joined last month by my uncle and aunt (and several thousand others) on a cruise to Alaska. We boarded the Celebrity/Solstice in Seattle and spent a week in what can only be described as a grand adventure. The scenery was absolutely spectacular, and the quantities and assortment of fine foods was very near to being otherworldly. Speaking of otherworldly, I’m fairly certain that if I had been confronted with such a near-obscene array of good-looking food as a young, working-class Atlanta boy, I would have looked around for St. Peter to be sure I was where I thought I was.

Previously, my cruise log had only a single entry—aboard a U.S. Navy ship en route to mainland Japan from Okinawa (and then back) when I was a Marine in the 1970s. Nothing against Navy chow, but it could hardly compare to a Solstice spread and the impeccable service that accompanied it. It was also pleasant that on the Alaska cruise I was responsible for, and in charge of, exactly nothing. All I had to do was show up when and where my wife directed me. I do that well.

I can’t say that I’m suddenly a cruise convert, but I have to admit that sitting on our balcony and watching the deep-emerald islands and the rugged, snow-capped mountains pass in front of me was one of those matchless experiences that escapes adequate description. The big ship moved along effortlessly most of the time, and that small balcony became a place of solitude and reflection for me, even in the dark of night. Seeing a whale was also an exciting first.

The Alaskan towns we visited were quaint and interesting, but only for as long as my uncle and I could locate a saloon and get to know some of the locals. Seaplanes were everywhere, buzzing like mosquitoes, and if I go back I will take a tour on one. The fiord and glacier and blue ice were all breathtaking, but when you finally did breathe you were inhaling some of the freshest air on earth. The Alaskan wilderness, like the sea that borders it, is an awesome yet somewhat intimidating marvel. Its arresting beauty combined with its power and strength and timelessness makes a mortal human feel small and fragile in comparison. Nature is indeed forceful, and in its untouched, undiminished form, it is, again, indescribable.

Now I know why I’ve never heard anyone who has taken an Alaska cruise say anything but great things about their experience.

Add me to that list.

GeneralDavis2Gen. Raymond G. Davis, United States Marine Corps, is one of the more legendary figures in the fabled history of the Corps. He was a combat veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. He was awarded virtually every decoration this nation can bestow for acts of gallantry, including the Medal of Honor. And he attained four-star rank when he was named Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps near the end of his illustrious career.

His Medal of Honor citation reads in part: “Always in the thick of the fighting Lt. Col. Davis led his battalion over 3 successive ridges in the deep snow in continuous attacks against the enemy and, constantly inspiring and encouraging his men throughout the night, brought his unit to a point within 1,500 yards of the surrounded rifle company by daybreak. Although knocked to the ground when a shell fragment struck his helmet and 2 bullets pierced his clothing, he arose and fought his way forward at the head of his men until he reached the isolated Marines.”

The temperature that night in Korea was 30 degrees below zero. He rescued his Marines and opened up a critical mountain pass.

When I was a Basic School student at Quantico, Virginia as a Marine second lieutenant in 1970, Gen. Davis attended a formal dinner for our class, by tradition referred to as Mess Night. I knew of his exploits in combat, and I saw the Medal of Honor around his neck and the Navy Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and numerous other decorations on his chest. He was soft-spoken, of average height and build, but he had the unmistakable presence and aura that great leaders exude, all without a trace of vanity or condescension.

When I mentioned to Gen. Davis that I was from his home state of Georgia, he asked what school I had attended. I knew the general had graduated from Georgia Tech, and when I mentioned that I had attended his school’s chief rival, he smiled and said, “Ah, a Georgia Bulldog.”

The years passed, and I now wish that I had arranged to visit him before his death in 2003, at age 88. I could have taken along the three novels I’ve written and we could have talked about the football fortunes of Georgia and Georgia Tech. And I’m sure we would have talked about the Marine Corps. What a rich wellspring of Marine history he would have been.

Thank you, Gen. Davis, for the remarkable service you rendered this nation in its times of need. You will forever be remembered by your fellow Marines.