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Heroic Humility

September 13, 2008
By W. Thomas Smith Jr.
GIANTS OF MEN: That was to be my title until my friend, nationally syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker, beat me to the punch with her title, Giants Among the Lilliputians.

Of course, I played up the bit with her about great minds thinking alike. But I'm not sure it was as much about great minds as it was the great obviousness of whom the guests of honor were at a reception hosted by Kathleen and her husband Woody Cleveland last Tuesday.

The soiree - a gathering of the regional gentry; a string ensemble; bagpipes; ladies escorted by Marines in dress blues, Navy midshipmen, and cadets from the local military academy; plenty of Southern delicacies; wine, whiskey, and what have you - was held at the Cleveland's 182-year-old antebellum home in Camden, S.C. (just down the road from the site of British Maj. Gen. Sir Charles Cornwallis' defeat of Continental Army Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates in 1780).

More than a party, it was a celebration of America's greatest warriors - living and dead - our Medal of Honor (MoH) recipients.

Which brings me to the guests of honor: Four men - Army Col. Charles P. Murray Jr. (awarded the MoH for his actions in World War II as a 1st Lt.), Army Sgt. John F. Baker Jr. (awarded the MoH for his actions in Vietnam as a PFC), Marine Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston (awarded the MoH for his actions in Vietnam as a captain), and Navy SEAL Lt. Michael E. Thornton (awarded the MoH for his actions in Vietnam as a petty officer) - all of whom are recipients of our nation's highest personal decoration for valor during armed combat. It is the award for which Gen. George S. Patton once proclaimed, "I'd give my immortal soul for that decoration."

Currently there are 100 living recipients of the MoH (three recipients passed away over the summer): Most of the recipients are usually killed during the action for which their deeds warrant the medal. All recipients since the Battle of Mogadishu have been killed during their individual actions. South Carolina claims six of the living recipients, including the aforementioned four.

As I said in remarks at a Medal of Honor Society luncheon the day before Kathleen and Woody's party:

"Heroes are those who go to the absolute extremes during moments of terror and the most challenging circumstances - risking life and limb, sometimes running up against the cores of their very souls - to do what's right ... and what no one else will do.
"Just because you have been in a combat situation - and many of us in here have been - does not mean you are necessarily heroic for simply having been in that situation. It's what you do in that situation, individually - the risk, the sacrifice, the performance of an unimaginable task, the negotiation of an obstacle that to even the very best of soldiers would seem insurmountable. It's doing the thing that would seem physically, mentally and emotionally impossible."

That is precisely what these men have done. Yet they consider themselves to be ordinary men, and it's not some public pretense of ordinariness. They truly believe it. And having known and served with men such as these in peace and in war, I'm increasingly coming to the conclusion that their ordinariness is one of the genetically-wired-into-them ingredients - among other things - that predisposes them to great feats of heroism in the first place.

Selfish men, bullies, and braggarts don't perform well in battle. And those believing in their own extraordinariness rarely if ever accomplish feats worthy of the MoH.

Anyone who has ever known a MoH recipient would have to agree that he is a unique soul. The medal itself is impressive - including the knowledge of what it takes to become a recipient (The recipient will tell you, no one wins the medal) - but the man who wears it is beyond impressive: He is almost impossible to describe because he is a man whose actions have literally transcended heroics, and there is no philosophy or science to adequately explain it.

What we do know about these men is that no matter what kinds of lives they might have been leading before the actions (resulting in their awards); we see in the remainders of their lives, humility, graciousness, restraint, an unmatched sense of responsibility toward their fellow man, and always - I mean, always -- putting others above themselves. They are committed to a life of service beyond the military, and this commitment to service has absolutely nothing to do with egocentrism, ambition, or any desire for personal recognition.

It's simply who and what these men are.

In her column, Kathleen writes: "At a time when Americans bemoan the lack of positive role models, there are at least 103 real heroes living discreet lives in quiet neighborhoods across this nation. We have no paucity of role models. What we have is a failure to notice them."

Brig. Gen. Eugene Rogers (S.C State Guard) - an attorney, former Marine, and the chairman of the 2010 Medal of Honor convention - agrees, and he is working hard to increase the public's awareness.

"It is absolutely essential to the moral health and strength of this nation, especially in this time of war, that we increase the awareness of who these men are and why they - not some celebrity or sports star - are the true heroes of America," Rogers tells me.

Under Rogers' leadership, the 2010 Medal of Honor convention will be held in Charleston, S.C.  The convention will be hosted by the Citadel and the S.C. State Guard.

(Donations in support of the convention may be made to the
South Carolina State Guard Foundation
Post Office Box 100200
Columbia, S.C. 29202)

- Visit W. Thomas Smith Jr. online at

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