In the Presence of Real Heroes – Oct. 18, 2010

I am going to pass on a rich vein tonight.  And it’s hard, too, with the preposterous spectacle of the President of the United States taking his cue from a left-wing blog and accusing the US Chamber of Commerce, of all things, of trying to funnel foreign money and subvert the US campaign – and without a shred of evidence.  That the President should so demean his office by making baseless charges like this – well, suffice it to say I’d love to spend the evening writing about it.

But instead, I want to discuss the event I attended on Saturday night:  the big annual tribute to the USO held at Navy Pier.  It was a big affair – 1,000 people in black tie, lots of military and business leaders, many of them ex-military as well.  Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the keynote speaker; Gary Sinise was there with his Lt. Dan Band; Bonnie Hunt was mistress of ceremonies.
There was a very impressive display by the US Coast Guard’s Silent Drill Team – precision motions, flipping and spinning their rifles to no cadence other than the slap! slap! slap! of their own movements.  The master sergeant stood unflinching in the midst of them as they tossed their rifles to each other, spinning end over end, their bayonets passing within a foot of his head.   I also had the pleasure of meeting Col. Bernie Banks, veteran of Desert Storm, Ranger, Apache attack helicopter pilot, and now head of Leadership Training at West Point (he leads the leaders!); in addition to his other honors, he holds a  Master’s in Public Administration from Harvard and an MBA from Kellogg at Northwestern.  As I said, impressive stuff.
But what was really moving about the whole night was the sense you had in the room that this was a brotherhood of people (of both genders – I use the term to connote a depth of bond) who had made the choice to risk their lives for their country.  You can find very smart, even brilliant people in all walks of life, whether in the arts, academia, or the office.  But nowhere else will you find people whose career choice exposes them to adversaries who will do everything they can to kill them (I count the civilian equivalent of our soldiers in this group as well – principally our police and firemen).  Most of the rest of us find our way in paths that do some good perhaps but mostly serve ourselves.  These folks respond to a call of duty that most do not hear.
There was no triumphalism about the evening.  But there was a dignity, a frequently-repeated tribute to the sacrifice of the wounded warriors or those who gave their lives, as well as that of their families, who bear a common burden as well that the rest of us don’t know.  There were Medal of Honor winners in attendance, who received standing ovations, as well as Gold Star families who had lost a loved one.  If there was no gung-ho war-mongering, neither was there a sense of victimhood.  Despite the drippy portrayals of much of the media about our fallen soldiers, I got no sense of self-pity in the room.  Just profound respect, honor, and gratitude.
[Six degrees of separation, Courage Division: a young man who works for me was gymnastics co-captain in high school with our most recent Medal of Honor winner, a Ranger named Robert Miller who gave his life in Afghanistan so his comrades could extricate themselves from an ambush.  According to witnesses, he was shot twice and still carried on killing insurgents to left and right while his unit regrouped.  Where does one find the stones to do that?]
I felt like a tourist.  The best way to describe it is the way I feel about fatherhood.  Having Regan late in life, I had been an uncle for an entire generation before my chance came along to step into the real role.  And there is just no way of knowing what it is until you are in the club.  It was the same here.  Those in the room who had worn the uniform knew what it was all about – the hard stuff, the danger, the commitment to each other, the bond.  Their families knew a different, equally profound bond.  The rest of us could only imagine.
The story was told of a young soldier who was badly wounded in Iraq.  When he came to in the military hospital in Landsruhe, he had two questions: am I in Germany? Did anyone else get hurt?  Then he took out his respirator and said, “I’ve got to get back to my unit.”
Getting just a wee bit political here, it’s fascinating how Hollywood liberal types put speeches in the mouths of bad-guy characters to discredit what they stand for, when the speeches themselves actually have merit.  Gordon Gekko, for example: greed really is good, if the word is meant as a harsher way of saying self-interest.  It is the pursuit of self-interest – within the boundaries of honesty and legality, which Gekko disdained – that propels a society forward.  But Oliver Stone has Gekko say it, and his ethical shortcomings are meant to show us that the basis of capitalism is rancid.
Similarly, Aaron Sorkin has Marine Colonel Jessep (Jack Nicholson) say this in his famous “you can’t handle the truth” speech: “Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns… My existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives… Deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.”  Crazy military right-wing nut.
Well, we do need them on that wall, don’t we?  And they are incomprehensible.  How is it that some look at the wealth of opportunity that is available to people in this country and rather than seize the plums their talents might afford them decide instead to go mount that wall to get shot at so others can reach for those plums?
One of the traditions in events like this is a series of toasts to the various branches of the military, offered up by senior officers in succession – to the Army; to the Navy; to the Marines; to the Air Force; to the Coast Guard.  And lastly, to our Commander in Chief, President Barack Obama.  And even though I would be willing to bet that most of the people in that room voted against him, and many as well think he has made a hash of our war strategies, there was no smirking, no hesitation, no pause: “to the President.”
Thank God we have honorable people like that serving our country.
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