Memorial Day in America, 2016

We needed the occasion, to remember in America, and with our friends abroad, what greatness is.

We needed it to celebrate honor, duty, service and sacrifice in such a year as this. It fell just about halfway through this contentious, dishonorable, politically charged and pivotal election year, so it would be nice if it were more of an opportunity to re-ground ourselves in what we just celebrated, than to let the day go by as a wonderful recall of noble heroism embodied in countless acts of virtue, of ‘grace under pressure’, impulsively carried out to serve or save another without hesitation or concern that it may be a final act in the life of that hero, who only thought they were doing the right thing.

‘The right thing’ has become a political calculus these days, ‘right’ being as redefined as so many other terms in our shared social life, as if there were no moral compass and objective natural law of what we ought to do and what we can’t not know, apart from the dictates of the culture of relativism as manifested in media, law and politics.

Everywhere I turned and looked on Memorial Day weekend seemed more filled than ever with witnesses to greatness in acts of goodness, displays of loving gratitude, celebrations of appreciation for the ultimate act of service for a single other person, groups of others, or countless populations of others, sometimes in a split-second decision to take that action, out of the impulse to protect and to save.

Here are two examples.

On my radio program, I had the opportunity to feature three individuals in two wars. Adam Makos told me about the story of Tom Hudner and Jesse Brown, two great friends and Navy pilots in the Korean War, a story that fills the pages of Makos’ book Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship and Sacrifice.

“On December 4th, 1950, the Korean War had turned very dire. We had 10,000 U.S. Marines surrounded by 100,000 Chinese communist troops at a place called the Chosin Reservoir, way up in northern North Korea. Men like Tom and Jesse would fly [from their nearby naval carrier ships] to give air support to the Marines. They would drop bombs and strafe, and that’s when Jesse Brown was shot down. He was hit by a bullet from the ground, from a Chinese soldier, and he crash-landed in the only place he could — on the side of a North Korean mountain.”

Brown’s wingman, Tom Hudner, witnessed what happened, and then saw smoke rising from the nose of Jesse’s plane, which lay 13 miles behind enemy lines. Hudner said, “I’m going in.” All the other pilots remained silent.

Makos continued, “Tom knew his friend was about to die, and he was willing to give his own life to try to change that. With his wheels up, Tom circled around and came to a skidding, screeching stop alongside of Jesse’s plane. Tom got out into that deep snow and set out to try to save his friend’s life. It had never happened before; it has never happened since.”

Among the many extraordinary lessons in this story is the transcendent nature of friendship, human dignity and faith. Discrimination in society over race, religion, background and economic class falls away in war, the great and terrible equalizer. It is life lived at its absolute essence, informed by a powerful transcendent belief, that emerges in all the accounts of war heroes.

That was personified in the service and witness of Fr. Vincent Capodanno, Marine Chaplain who served in the Vietnam War and lost his life in the most extraordinary acts of ministering to dying men during a firefight that exposed him to mortal danger. I featured his story on that Memorial Day program as well, but it barely scratched the surface of a profoundly deep belief in and dedication to the care of others, body and soul, who are in front of you in whatever circumstances you’re in, and theses were dire.

The whole account is in The Grunt Padre, the fuller account of Fr. Capodanno’s service and sacrifice in detail, during his time in Vietnam 1966-1967. Christ Stefanick does a good job summarizing it in this video.

Some snips:

He knew that where the fighting was thickest, is where a chaplain might be needed the most.

One marine said

“He just gave me a look like ‘don’t worry, it’s going to be okay’.” Then the gas started getting lobbed, and Fr. Capodanno refused to take the Marine’s gas mask. “He said ‘no, you need it more than I do’. At that moment, he was just gone from my view.”

A marine was hit with shrapnel. When Fr. Capdanno got to him, “a bubble of peace descended around him. All he heard was his voice: ‘God is with us all this day. Someone will be here soon to help you.’ Fr. Capodanno was always able to see the crisis of the moment from an eternal perspective…Capodanno didn’t survive that day. He was running to minister to a medic who was shot, just yards from the machine gunner who had targeted him. He was shot 27 times in the back. He died in a field in Vietnam with that medic.

The excerpt from The Grunt Padre about that final assault is profound. It’s what Corporal Ray Harton recalls in a powerful testimony of Fr. Capodanno’s final minutes. Harton was hit repeatedly in the battle after “the carnage started”.

I don’t know how long I lay there. I found myself getting weaker and could see the North Vietnamese soldiers moving in on us…I thought everyone else was dead. I prayed to God, for I knew I was bleeding to death…I expected a bullet or bayonet at any moment. As I closed my eyes, someone touched me. When I opened my eyes, he looked directly at me. It was Father Capodanno. Everything got still: no noise, no firing, no screaming. A peace came over me that is unexplainable to this day. In a quiet and calm voice, he cupped the back of my head and said, “Stay quiet, Marine. You will be OK. Someone will be here to help you soon. God is with us all this day.”

As Stefanick notes, Fr. Capodanno didn’t survive the day. But his service and witness are beyond extraordinary.

And so were those told by others throughout the Memorial Day weekend, in so many ways and places, from the Mall of Washington events honoring service members in different wars, to tributes published and broadcast in so many outlets. Many note that it’s a memorial held beyond US borders.

Like this one in Cambridge, England.

And this one in France.

Taking it all in, allowing ourselves to be filled with gratitude for so many individuals who so nobly gave everything they had for another human being, and inspiration that these countless stories are being continued in so many ways today in battles to save endangered populations from extinction, villages and towns and refugee camps from assault and violence, and the most vulnerable human beings from enslavement, trafficking, torture and death, we should be filled with hope.

And that each of us has the power of greatness within us to serve the common good, and the responsibility to do what’s in our reach each day, without looking for a savior in politics. The sooner we do, the less we’ll believe that making America great, or ‘getting’ hope and change, relies on a politician or someone running for political office.

It relies on each and all of us.

‘Graveyard of integrity’ at highest level of leadership

Benghazi is in a few more headlines today, like it or not.

The Daily Beast:

In its seventh week, discussion about what happened in Benghazi has begun to focus on why military teams in the region did not respond to the assault on the U.S. mission and the nearby CIA annex.

This is pretty thorough, and it tries to piece together what happened, when, and who tried to do what.

But military backup may have made a difference at around five the following morning, when a second wave of attackers assaulted the CIA annex where embassy personnel had taken refuge. It was during this second wave of attacks that two ex-SEALs working for the CIA’s security teams—Glenn Dougherty and Tyrone Woods—were killed in a mortar strike.

About those former SEALs, this commentary from The Blaze speaks more clearly than most anything else.

All political drama aside, the piece of this story I choose to hang onto has nothing to do with the finger pointing or political side stepping aimed at preserving the integrity of the current administration long enough to get reelected. Men sacrificed themselves for one another and for their country. What kind of a man, in the face of overwhelming odds, knowingly and freely lays down his life for the man next to him? Glen Doherty and Ty Woods did just that. At that moment it didn’t matter that they had been Navy SEALs or that they were now contractors operating under different laws and rules of engagement. History doesn’t remember “Golgatha Gate” and the political fallout of crucifying Jesus. An entire religion was born from that simple act of suffering and sacrifice, not the reelection of Pontius Pilate…

What I’m saying is that politics and bureaucracy trend towards failure, and that individuals have the capacity to instantaneously realize divine greatness despite being captives of a flawed and broken system led by individuals who do not possess comparable character.

Take their past and future out of the convoluted story and focus on the cold hard truths people face when in combat. You either fight or you run. What makes a person stand and fight to the death? Is it an oath to a piece of paper or a paycheck? No. People fight to the death for the respect and love of the individuals next to them. It’s their common lives, shared suffering, and love for one another’s unlimited futures that keeps them in the fight.

The actions of two Americans in battle and the character they displayed in the face of overwhelming odds should be what guilts this administration into letting the truth be told…

Could this have happened under anybody’s watch? Of course. What is telling is how the administration handled the incident. There was a blatant failure in leadership somewhere in the chain and instead of admitting it, identifying it, and taking steps toward fixing it, they instantaneously moved to deflect the entire event. Since that didn’t work , they are attempting to use any and all events as a platform to move past the event.

It is not the failure and the loss of life that bothers me. That’s a cold thing to say, but anyone who has spent time working within our Government bureaucracy understands how poorly it operates and that these events will happen regardless of who is at the helm. What’s extremely troublesome is that the character and valor being displayed at the lowest levels consistantly and without exception outshines the “leaders” at the top of the chain. This is not a recipe for success. Transparency is what we need as a nation right now and we need to face some painful truths. Glen and Ty were just two Americans trying to do the right thing and in the pursuit of what they believed to be right they sacrificed their lives without concern for their own fate. Isn’t that the kind of character we should demand of our elected leaders?

Yes.