EDITOR'S NOTE: Recently, a man was charged with a federal crime for fraudulently claiming to be a Medal of Honor recipient. The following interview--which was first posted in May 2008--describes the valor and deeds of men in the United States Armed Forces. Some Medal of Honor recipients survived after their acts of courage, some rest in hallowed ground on distant lands, some of their earthly bodies sank to deep watery graves. Many were brought home to lie in the soil of the country they fought so gallantly to defend. But these men's spirits are not lost, they are with God.
Scripture says: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." [John 15:13 -- King James Version]
RFFM.org honors all men and women who served and are serving our nation honorably.
The following interview was conducted by Dan Gura with Doug Sterner, creator of the Home of Heroes web site. Sterner is a Viet Nam veteran and recipient of two Bronze Stars.
Daniel Zanoza, Executive Director, RFFM.org
Gura writes, "Today I offer something which will make you stand a little straighter, a little prouder to be an American."
Do you know who Jason L. Dunham is? How about Paul Ray Smith? You should because they are two of America’s finest sons; they are heroes in the War on Terror.
These days the press doesn’t seem to care very much about conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty. No, they’re too busy whining every time some two bit terrorist thug sniffles, or mugging over Paris Hilton’s latest foibles to tell you about these real heroes. So I’ll tell you why you should know these two men.
Corporal Dunham, U.S. Marine Corps, received the Medal of Honor for his actions on April 14, 2004 in Karabilah, Iraq after an insurgent released a hand grenade. His citation reads, “Aware of the immediate danger and without hesitation, Corporal Dunham covered the grenade with his helmet and body, bearing the brunt of the explosion and shielding his Marines from the blast. In an ultimate and selfless act of bravery in which he was mortally wounded, he saved the lives of at least two fellow Marines.”
Sergeant First Class Paul R. Smith, U.S. Army, received the Medal of Honor for his actions on April 4, 2003 near Baghdad International Airport. His citation reads…”his Task Force was violently attacked by a company sized enemy force…As the fight developed Sergeant First Class Smith braved hostile enemy fire to personally engage the enemy with hand grenades and anti-tank weapons and organized the evacuation of three wounded soldiers…In total disregard for his own life, he maintained his exposed position in order to engage the attacking enemy force. During this action, he was mortally wounded.”
Want to learn more about real heroes? There is a most incredible web site, www.homeofheroes.com, which I encourage everyone to visit--often. But be forewarned that your eyes will tear up as you read the stories of the 3,457 individual acts of heroism which have earned the Medal of Honor. You can download the individual citations and read with awe the true stories of extraordinary heroism thanks to a Vietnam veteran and winner of two Bronze Star Medals, Doug Sterner, U.S. Army, retired (photo).
Some amazing facts: Doug Sterner's website is huge—3.5 gigabytes in size—and so extensive that it would take 150,000 sheets of paper (that’s 30 cases!) to print it all. Every month more than ½ million different visitors visit the website. The site includes medal Citations listed by war, branch of service and by state. It also contains an impressive U.S. History section, presidential inaugural addresses, downloadable books and enough patriotic resources to guarantee your child an A+ on a term paper about real heroes.
Webmaster Sterner, "considered the most knowledgeable historian of America’s highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor," was kind enough to grant me the following interview about heroes.
Who were your heroes when you were growing up?
Because I was reared in a Christian family for which church-attendance was both compulsory and regular, many of my boyhood heroes were Biblical characters like David, Joshua and others. At the same time, some of my other heroes came from the Saturday morning television programs and included Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers. During my grade school years, my heroes became the legends of American History classes: George Washington, Thomas Payne, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, etc. I also greatly enjoyed the popular war movies of the 50s and grew up with great admiration for Sergeant York, Audie Murphy, John D. Bulkeley, Jimmy Doolittle and other heroes of the World Wars.
What is your opinion on today's youth replacing military leaders and respected politicians with pop culture "icons" as their heroes?
Heroes and legends are the gift of older generations to the younger. Children grow up admiring the people they learn about from their parents, their teachers, media and entertainment (movies). The "heroes" our children admire today, they admire because these are the same heroes or types of "heroes" admired by their parents.
As a society, we have failed to distinguish between celebrities and heroes. All too often, we use the term "hero" all too lightly. The highly-paid quarterback who throws the Super Bowl winning touchdown is "the hero of the game" in today's world. But he is no hero; he is an athlete who did his job very well. That can be admired and respected; and there is no shame in youth wishing to emulate such an athlete's success. The same could be said for celebrities who become role models for youth who want fame and fortune. There is nothing wrong with fame and/or fortune; these are basic tenets of the "American Dream" which reminds young and old alike that we live in the Land of Opportunity where you can rise above any situation to achieve your dreams.
In generations past, heroes and celebrities were often one and the same person. Jesse Owens was a great athlete AND an American hero. He was a hero, however, not because of what he did as an athlete on the track, but because of what he stood for as a person. Other great celebrities of past generations became heroes, in addition to being celebrities. Clark Gable flew in WWII bombers to film for recruiting movies and Jimmy Stewart left a Hollywood career at its zenith to serve in the Army Air Force in Europe. Rocky Blier was an admired gridiron celebrity that many young looked up to, admired and called a "hero". He did, in fact, become a hero, not because of what he did on the ball field, but because of his service in Vietnam and the inspirational way in which he struggled back after his severe wounds.
Sadly, the vast majority of our celebrities whether in sports or in entertainment, lack this second dimension of personal character and integrity-- which means despite what we call them as a society, they are NOT heroes, merely celebrities and/or (and not always good) role models.
The challenge then for us as a nation is to:
1. Learn to differentiate between heroes and celebrities and not ignore the important role filled by either. We need celebrities to remind us what can be achieved personally in this Land of Opportunity and fill young minds with hopes and dreams, but we also need heroes to remind us that there are some things in life more important than fame and fortune or the advancement of self. A true HERO, by my definition, is someone who SACRIFICES for the sake of others.
2. Older generations need to spend more time learning about our heroes and sharing their stories with our youth. Obviously, this means educators, entertainment industries, media and more. It is especially incumbent upon our political leaders to become aware of our heroes. There are fewer than 110 living Medal of Honor recipients, yet I would wager that the majority of the members of either House of Congress couldn't name even the one or two recipients that reside in their individual states. The single most important aspect, however, is parents. I grew up loving American heroes because of the many stories my father told me. Not only were the stories fascinating, but seeing the way my father felt about these great men and women gave me an indication as to how important they were.
3. We need to quit trying to destroy our heroes. As a society, we love a good success story because it inspires us and then we thrive on the scandal that brings the heroes back down to our level. In order to be a hero, one must be HUMAN. An heroic act is something a man or woman did that rises above the level of what we would expect: "Above and beyond the call of duty" if you will. The person who does that which is reasonably expected is not a hero. But the person who accomplishes that which we might otherwise think humanly impossible is certainly heroic. Thus, the prerequisite for being a hero is to be human. And every human also has failings. Look close enough at any hero and you will find their human faults--EVERY hero has them.
We destroy our heroes for any number of inane reasons. Revisionist history has sought to highlight the human failings of our Presidents, our moguls, our celebrities and even our military heroes. To what end? A Medal of Honor recipient sharing his story at the local VFW is lucky to get a two-line announcement in the local paper. But let him get charged with DUI driving home and it is front page news. All that does is give others the excuse to say, "See, he may be a hero, but he isn't any better than me!" The fact is, I've never met a TRUE hero who thought he or she was better than anyone else--most of them even shy away from the title "hero"--but, for some masochistic reason, we as a society like to bring down our heroes.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this is our political world. (Keep in mind, I am a life-long Republican who is so conservative, I think anybody to the Right of me is an extremist.) In 1991 when Vietnam War Medal of Honor Recipient Robert Kerrey ran for President, my party trashed him for "war crimes committed in Vietnam" and called for his Bronze Star to be taken away. Twelve years later, when Democratic Senator John Kerry ran for President, we turned around and trashed him for CLAIMING that "American soldiers committed war crimes in Vietnam." The fact is, both men served in Vietnam, both were awarded various medals by the U.S. Navy and decades after their service we have no right to go back and second guess the legitimacy of their awards or tear them down simply for political gain. I expect a higher standard of respect for our Veterans from ALL Americans and especially from the Republican Party which I have always felt tended to be more of the flag-waving, patriotic party akin to my own fierce patriotism and love of our military men and women. During the politics of that last decade-and-a-half we've seen the military service of Republicans like Dan Quayle and John McCain called into question by those who disagreed with them on political issues, as well as such Democrats as Robert Kerrey, Al Gore, Max Cleland and John Kerry (all four of whom served in Vietnam). Is it any wonder there are so few military veterans serving in Congress today? Where once military service was certainly a plus for a man seeking election--almost requisite--in today's political arena, a Veteran who opts to run for office will quickly find the nature of their service, even the legitimacy of medals they were awarded, called into question.
This is a problem on both sides of the political spectrum--"Win at any cost". But one side doing it does not make it right for the other party to repay in kind--for all that is accomplished is the belittlement of those men and women who have earned the title "hero"--whether we agree with them politically or not. Until we quit trashing our heroes as a society, we can hardly expect our children to embrace true heroes.
Gallop's annual "Values and Beliefs" poll released June 4th showed 82% "say the state of moral values in our country as a whole is growing worse." Do you believe this is related to America's lack of traditional heroic figures?
"Moral Decay" is the popular buzz-word of virtually EVERY generation in rejection to change. Growing up in the 50s, I certainly heard it. My mother forbade me to even listen to Elvis Presley's music. If Gallup had done a poll on "Values and Beliefs" in the "Roaring Twenties" I'll bet they'd have got an earful. It was certainly a concern during the 60s revolution.
Judging a generation is just like how we look at heroes. You can either focus on Ira Hayes as a brave Marine, doing his duty at Iwo Jima and proudly hoisting the flag, or as a troubled young man who drank himself to an early grave.
I tend to define morality not based upon Victorian values of what you DON'T do: "I don't smoke and I don't chew, and I don't go with the girls that do". I'm more concerned about what you are DOING while you are NOT DOING what you are NOT DOING. Until the 1960s our Nation was very largely isolationistic, hence the great reluctance until Pearl Harbor to involve ourselves in "Europe's War". With our increasing personal wealth and security, it became easy to focus on self and say that the rest of the world was not our problem. Much of that changed during the "moral decay" of the 60s as American Green Berets went around the world not simply to fight, but to help FREE THE OPPRESSED by also digging wells, planting fields, purifying water, tending medical needs and building schools. The Peace Corps established by President Kennedy spoke to the "new morality" of the 60s of the obligation to others, and not just other AMERICANS.
Morality is living by the Golden Rule. While we remain comfortable in the freest and most prosperous society in world history, priding ourselves on what we don't do (in terms of traditional sin), I have to remember the words of I John 3:17 "But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him."
Scripture further teaches us that "Unto whom much is given, of him shall be much required." This is not socialism, this is personal responsibility. We as a nation have been greatly blessed, and because of that blessing, of US is much required. After two centuries of largely isolationism, occasional colonialism, and certain evolution into the GREATEST nation not only in the world but in world history, only within the last few decades have we begun to realize more and more our responsibility to the rest of the world. Today, young American men and women are fighting half-way around the world, not for themselves or even for the direct sake of our own country, but on behalf of people who were liberated from one of the most evil regimes in history. Despite the problems with that war, what they are doing as individuals, and what we are doing as a nation, is admirable. Our young today are equally concerned about those downtrodden in Darfur and other regions of the world and in contrast to many previous generations, instead of looking away, are calling for action. This, in my thinking, is morality of the highest order.
Certainly we have seen a degeneration in attitudes towards marriage, family, the sanctity of life, and especially in a traditional respect for ones elders and for authority. This is a degeneration we can not blame upon the young, but upon ourselves. Our young will develop as we teach them, both by word and example.
What can we do to change today's media--where Paris Hilton going to jail makes TV headlines for a week, but brave soldiers earning the Medal of Honor are lucky to make their local paper?
We need to change our personal attitudes towards others. I'm no fan of Paris Hilton, but the fact is most of American society LOVES to watch her fall apart. Why? I believe it is largely jealousy. There are many in our society who have equally appalling life-style choices, most of whom we ignore because they are poor wretched creatures. But Paris Hilton has two things most of us will never have--fabulous wealth and fame. Watching her fall warms our hearts much as the scandal that engulfs a politician, sports celebrity, or hero makes us feel good.
Just last night I was watching "America's Got Talent" on TV for the first time. I gathered one of the judges is vying to become a Simon Cowell-wannabe through rudeness, thinly disguised as "entertainingly blatant honesty". What bothered me even more than this one judge's actions was the mean spirit of the audience, obviously encouraged by the show's producers. Most parents have suffered through a school play or recital in which their kids were involved, but no matter how bad, would be ready to fight if the audience treated them this way. But as a TV audience, we revel in the shaming and humiliation of a performer who is talented in their own mind only. And we can't blame the younger generation for this degeneration of our media--the Idol and other such programs are eagerly anticipated and widely watched (and thereby endorsed) by their parents and even their grandparents.
What can we do to help you spread the word about America's heroes?
That is probably the toughest question for me to answer. I've never thought of my work as being in any way some sort of crusade, but rather simply a passion to preserve the history of who we are as a nation by concentrating on the positive. Far more than getting help "spreading the word", I guess my primary hope is that people will learn about our heroes from the pages I have written, find in these heroes the inspiration needed to give them courage in their own lives, and come to emulate the deep respect for others that motivates a young man or woman to risk, and even give their own life, for others.
My column will be read mostly by conservative, often Republican, adults? As a father, former evangelic minister and soldier, what advice would you like to give to parents on raising patriotic, God-fearing children, who will be a credit to their country and their Creator?
My message to my party today would be to get back to the values we have always believed in as Republicans:
1. We are NOT afraid to say the word "God" or "Prayer" or to acknowledge that our society was founded upon Christian principles. While we may NOT be a Christian nation, we certainly can and should be a nation of Christians--as well as others of faith.
2. We believe LESS government is a better government, and that personal liberty cannot and should not be sacrificed for security. The 13 colonies that became our United States was born in a dangerous time, a time when King George promised our residents, "I can protect you, but in turn, I'll have to infringe upon your liberties, quarter my troops in your barns, levy taxes to pay for your protection and suspend the due process of law to protect you from insurrectionists." Living in a free society means we must sometimes live in a dangerous world. As Republicans, we have always believed personal liberty was worth the risk--knowing that absolute safety can only be guaranteed by one to whom we surrender our liberty.
3. We need to get away from the situational ethics that have so long been the mantra of the Democrats and that have more recently crept into our own Republican thinking. No matter what the Democrats do, two wrongs don't make a right. As John McCain says with respect to his refusal to repay terrorists with torture, "It's not about who THEY are, it's about who WE are."
4. We believe in FAMILY, Father, Mother and children, and that "blood is thicker than water". Even so, we should not fear that which is alien to us. Our society will not be destroyed because we showed love and tolerance towards those who do not share our values; our world has always survived those who were different. Making some accommodation and giving some degree of acceptance to those different from us will NOT destroy America if we--as family--accept the responsibility we have to TRAIN, not just TEACH our children.
5. We need to become a kinder, gentler society, not just by catch-phrase, but by sincere action. We need to esteem personal achievement followed by personal service, and refuse the first, if it is not followed by the latter. We also need to fully realize that giving a hand-up is NOT socialism, but a personal responsibility.
6. We need to honestly realize that once in a while a Democrat may have a good idea and not reject-out-of-hand the entire package because it is postulated by a Liberal. The term "Liberals" defines nearly half our country and, right or wrong, they comprise half of who we are as a nation.
Thank you, Doug. You and your wife Pam are an inspiration to us all.
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