Thursday, May 27, 2010
Patriots and Demigods
I am a writer. I interview people. I write down what they say, throw in some twenty-five-dollar adjectives, and a magazine prints it. It can be a yeoman-like way to make a dollar, I admit, but every once in a while it provides a benefit beyond measure—I get to be in the presence of heroes.
There have been three times in my life that I have been around people when it dawned on me during the conversation that I had no right to be in the same room or breathe the same air.
The first time was when I interviewed Charles Murray, a WWII veteran and recipient of the United States of America’s highest award, the Medal of Honor. The second was when I spoke with Dr. Everett Dargan, an African-American cardiologist. Dr. Dargan is smarter than half the people in all of South Carolina, yet when he finished his medical training in the 60s, he couldn’t even walk in the back door of the “white hospital.” But he persevered, and despite an oppressive environment and monumental sacrifices, he established one of the finest cardiology practices in the state and has become a sought out mentor and medical school professor.
The third time occurred this past Saturday evening.
I attended the Palmetto Patriots Ball sponsored by the Midlands Chapter of the Blue Star Mothers; patriotic, upstanding, forthright women who also bear the unfathomable burden of having children in the military deployed on foreign soil. These soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen are the bravest South Carolina has to offer. Surrounded by their mothers who are rightfully proud of their children, but who, at the same time tread upon a precipice of fear for their safety, I quickly surmised where these men and women in uniform inherited their bravery. I’m a mama’s boy of the first magnitude. I can sense these things.
At the dinner I was flanked by Gold Star Mothers as well. These are members of the Blue Star group whose children have died in the service of our country, who, as Abraham Lincoln put it, gave “their last full measure of devotion” to make you and me free. The emcee, the gracious and classy local news anchor Hannah Horne, recognized the families and read aloud the names of their fallen loved ones. A staff sergeant at my table and a Marine captain at the table next to me, both in full, formal dress uniforms, broke down in tears. So did I.
I did not deserve to be in the company of these distinguished men and women—these heroes.
I’m often told that, because I have taken on the mantle of a writer of “young adult” fiction, my blog should reflect topics that address and capture issues meaningful to them. Not so much on the flip side of that coin, but perhaps on the periphery is a piece of advice my good friend and fellow author Shannon Greenland gave me once when I asked her about writing for young adults: Never underestimate the intelligence or sophistication of your audience.
I have taken Shannon’s advice, and each time I speak to a group of young people, I try my best to respect that advice and talk to them like fellow adults. So here it goes boys and girls, some hard lessons—my glass slipper—that I took from my night at the ball…my night among patriots and demigods.
• These fighting men and women don’t endure 105 degree heat so that we can drop out of school, lie around on our butts and let our parents or the government take care of us. They fight so we have economic justice, an opportunity to succeed.
• These men and women don’t live in the sand so that we can trade or use drugs, get high and not give a damn about ourselves or the lives we impact by stupid behavior. They volunteer to be away from home so that we have the freedom to pursue our American dreams. The average time of deployment, by the way, for WWII fighters was eight months out of four years of enlistment. For Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, it’s 45 months out of 48.
• These Gold Star Mothers didn’t sacrifice a child they raised from infancy so that we could feel free to engage in politically polarized infighting, to smear our opponents, to accuse another of being unpatriotic simply because we disagree with their ideology. Their children died in the desperate hope that their deaths would mean something, that we would come together as one nation...one nation of people with disparate beliefs and customs and cultures, but one nation whose people are, again quoting Lincoln, “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” As I recall, someone once summed the concept up as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
• With so many in the world who despise the freedom of expression and economic opportunity that Western culture represents, our military service men and women have taken the fight to our enemies rather than having our enemies visit us here. In return, don’t you believe we should quit spilling each others’ blood in gang fights and drug wars, or because our egos won’t let us walk away from a meaningless fight?
• Our service members didn’t leave home in hopes that we would honor them. They left to fulfill a duty, to answer a higher calling, to defend our liberties. Saying thank you is not enough recompense, but I realize that there is no way in the world to repay the debt we owe these courageous men and women…and above all the mothers who unselfishly lent them to our service so that we might be free. Perhaps the best way to try to repay them is to live our lives in a way that honors, rather than defies, their sacrifice.
Beside my plate at the banquet table lay a medallion that read, “If you can’t stand behind our troops, feel free to stand in front of them.”
I stand behind them not only out of gratitude, but because to stand in front of them would require their kind of courage, a brand I’m not sure I have; and especially not the brand their mothers, who have given the best of themselves, possess.
So to my Citadel family Russ Mease, Allen Blume, Dave Eubanks, Marc Gould, Ken and Alison Sigmon, Ken Riddle, Dean Costas, Mike Sammons, Verne Prosser; to Stuart Epting and Andy Nesbit; to my brother Mike Morton; to all of you who have put on a uniform and served so valiantly so that I can live my life in peace…thank you. And especially to your mothers, thank you. God bless you. I do not deserve to breathe the same air.