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Are we a society that no longer has heroes? Have we become so indifferent and cynical that men and women doing heroic things are seldom reported and hardly noticed, and consequently neither celebrated nor emulated? Are we now too sophisticated to become caught up in something so yesterday as a “hero,” while news coverage goes to thugs who shut down a campus speaker and perhaps even destroy property, all while behaving in ways that they themselves consider virtuous and courageous?

So, where did our heroes go?

Admittedly, it’s a stretch to find public officials nowadays in politics or academia whose actions would qualify as heroic. Our Hollywood celebrity culture provides an endless supply of shallow, egocentric, sparsely talented individuals who provide us not only with the fruits of their “craft,” but with their standard, spineless lecturing as their enlightened gift to the rest of us, the great unwashed.

The sporting world has become so soiled with cheating, pampered, self-absorbed athletes and coaches, and so driven by college and professional organizations that devalue longstanding virtues like loyalty and integrity, that past sports giants like Tom Landry, John Wooden, and Vince Lombardi would likely turn away in disgust. In addition, the corporate world has had its share of arrogant industry titans who have lied, bilked, and bullied their way to lifetime riches with astonishing collateral damage to their companies, customers, and stockholders.

There have been eighteen Medals of Honor awarded to American service members during the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and two more for service in Somalia. How many Americans have seen television or print media coverage of these men? How many Americans have seen the photos and heard the stories of all twenty? Or perhaps even two or three? Is this confirmation that we no longer have any heroes?

No, I don’t believe so.

Heroes are still among us. U.S. Airways pilot Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landing his stricken airplane safely in the Hudson River is one of them. So are the 343 New York City firefighters who climbed up those smoky stairwells and perished on that hard, dark September 11th day at the World Trade Center. There was 75 firehouses in New York in which at least one member was killed. Were these not heroes? Or the three young American service members who prevented a terrorist attack on a Paris train?

Americans still pull their fellow citizens from rain-swollen rivers. Single moms hold jobs, raise kids, and sometimes even go back to school. Dads teach their children about faithfulness, kindness, and sacrifice. Cancer patients, both young and old, fight back against their disease, often against overwhelming odds, and still give much of themselves to their families, churches, and communities. They are heroes, all. We are still a nation that needs it heroes, even without the high profile, to provide us with examples to follow, to cause us to remember our past, to give us reason for hope and encouragement.

I am a proud former U.S. Marine who marvels at the story of Corporal Kyle Carpenter, USMC, one of the twenty Medal of Honor awardees referenced above. In Afghanistan in 2010, Corporal Carpenter moved toward an enemy grenade to shield his fellow Marines from the blast. Kyle suffered extensive facial and limb damage and underwent multiple surgeries, not to mention enduring enough physical pain to last multiple lifetimes. And I couldn’t possibly comprehend the mental agony he has also bravely endured. After a three-year hospitalization and a medical retirement, Kyle became a college student. He is a survivor, a fighter, and an inspiration. He is a Marine, by God, in the very best way. And he is a hero.

So, it’s a fact that all the heroes didn’t get up and leave. They’re still here. Just like always.

Look around and I’ll bet you can find one. And when you do, thank them for staying.

For more on Kyle and other Medal of Honor recipients, follow this link.

 

 

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Once again it is the occasion of the U.S. Marine Corps’ birthday, and I often think about this officer when I consider the Corps’ rich heritage. His name was Michael P. Ryan. In 1973, I was about to complete my obligation to the Marines and would soon leave Okinawa to return home to my wife and two young sons in Atlanta. By chance, I happened to be in the Officers Club one night when Gen Ryan, the Commanding General of the 3rd Marine Amphibious Force, dropped by as a guest of our Battalion Commander. I introduced myself to Gen. Ryan and informed him that I would soon rotate home and separate from the Marine Corps.

Gen. Ryan graciously thanked me for my service. I noticed the Navy Cross medal he wore, the highest decoration the Naval Service can award for combat valor, second only to the Medal of Honor. In addition, I remembered from my study of Marine Corps history that he had served with great distinction at the bloody World War II battle of Tarawa in November 1943.

“General,” I asked, “what’s the one thing you remember most from Tarawa?”

Gen. Ryan replied without hesitation, “The salute.”

The battle of Tarawa was the first U.S. offensive in Central Pacific. To get to Japan, the Americans needed to take the Marianas; to take the Marianas, the U.S. needed to take the Marshalls; and to take the Marshalls, it was necessary to take Betio, on the western side of Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands.

Tarawa was the first U.S. invasion that was opposed at the landing beaches. Planners had expected a rising tide to provide a five-foot depth over the reef, but the depth was only three feet. The Higgins boats ferrying the Marines from ship to shore needed four feet of depth. Consequently, Marines had to wade ashore under murderous fire, greatly slowing their progress. “Situation in doubt” was communicated to the top U.S. commanders.

Casualties in first waves were shocking. It was a scene of utter chaos and destruction. Still, the young Marines kept advancing.

Then-Maj. Mike Ryan landed his company to the west of the main landing areas where he consolidated the stragglers from units that had been obliterated on the beaches. Suddenly, out of the smoke comes an old staff sergeant, dragging a wounded hip, who sought out Maj. Ryan and asked what he could do to assist. When Maj. Ryan explained the situation and suggested a leadership role for the sergeant, the man straightened, voiced a resolute “aye-aye, sir,” and gave a crisp Marine Corps salute.

The attack was a success and provided pressure on the enemy’s right flank, which eventually broke. The battle turned on Maj. Ryan’s audacious gallantry and inspiring leadership. The Japanese commander had said before the battle that it would take a million Marines a hundred years to take Tarawa. It took Maj. Mike Ryan, a shot-up old staff sergeant, and 5,000 other leathernecks 76 hours.

Mike Ryan never saw the old NCO after the battle, so he never knew whether the man had survived the battle or the war. He only knew that, of the tens of thousands of salutes he received in a long and distinguished military career, the sergeant’s salute at Tarawa was the one he cherished the most.

On this the 241st birthday of the Marine Corps, I salute the Marines of the past who made our Corps into the finest fighting organization in the world. And I salute the Marines of the present who have maintained those core values of honor, courage, and commitment.

Semper Fi.

 

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.